Ninty-one years ago, Herbert Hoover, campaigning for re-election amid the Great Depression, took special care to associate himself with Abraham Lincoln, but then so did his opponent, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had remarked a few years earlier, "I think it is time for us Democrats to claim Lincoln as one of our own." Late in the campaign, both men came to speak in Springfield and paid ceremonial visits to Lincoln's tomb. By the 1930s, "getting right with Lincoln" in this manner had become an almost universal custom among public figures. Not only Republicans and Democrats but also Communists, Socialists, Prohibitionists, business executives and labor leaders, black Americans and members of the Ku Klux Klan—all seemed to want him on their side.
Yet, a few voices of dissent could always be heard here and there. In 1932, an old Virginia gentleman named Lyon Gardiner Tyler, son of President John Tyler continued his long personal war upon the heroic image of Lincoln. "I think he was a bad man," Tyler wrote, "a man who forced the country into an unnecessary war and conducted it with great inhumanity." Tyler was the most prominent spokesman of his time for an anti-Lincoln tradition, attenuated but persistent, that had its sturdy roots in the years of the Civil War. Examining that tradition may illuminate Lincoln's place in the national consciousness—a place that is apparently secure but never precisely the same from one year to the next.
There were three principal sources of hostility to Lincoln during the Civil War: first, the enemy-that is, the people of the Confederacy and a sizable part of the population in the Southern Border states; second, the political opposition-that is, primarily the Democratic party in the North and the Border states, but including a good many conservative Whigs as well; third, the antislavery radicals, including elements both within and outside the Republican party. One might also designate as a fourth category the hostile critics watching and commenting on the war from Europe—most notably, a substantial portion of the English press.
The Southern image of Lincoln began as a mere sectional stereotype, and Southern hostility to his presidential candidacy was largely impersonal. Secession, although undertaken in response to the outcome of the election of 1860, had nothing to do with the particular qualities and qualifications of the man elected. It was the "Black Republican party" that Southerners hated and feared, whoever might happen to be the party's official leader. But when the secession crisis erupted into civil war, Southerners laid the blame squarely on Lincoln. In the years of bloody struggle and withering hope that followed, they came increasingly to view him as the principal author of all the woe that had descended upon them. Of course, Jefferson Davis simultaneously became a detested figure in the North, but with a significant difference. Davis, leading a rebellion, symbolized treason in the mold of Benedict Arnold. In Southern eyes, Lincoln's role was that of a military conqueror—a ruthless Attila bent upon destroying a superior civilization. In fact, the Confederate image of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s resembles the American image of Adolf Hitler in the 1940s.
The Southern indictment of Lincoln usually began with the assertion that he had made war unavoidable by opposing sectional compromise and then forcing the issue at Fort Sumter. After the first major war battle at Bull Run in July 1861, the Richmond Enquirer blamed him for all the deaths on both sides. "Of these men, Abraham Lincoln is the murderer," it declared. "We charge their blood upon him ... May the Heavens, which have rebuked his madness thus far, still battle his demon designs."
Confederates called Lincoln a "tyrant," a "fiend," and a "monster" for making war on civilians through the blockade, for authorizing the destruction of private property, for setting the likes of Ben Butler and William T. Sherman upon the Southern population, for suppressing civil liberties, for cruelly refusing to exchange prisoners, and, most of all, for emancipation, which they viewed as an incitement of slaves to rebellion and wholesale murder. In speeches, sermons, and songs, in books, magazines, newspapers, pamphlets, and broadsides, they also portrayed him as a simpleton, a buffoon, a drunkard, a libertine, a physical coward, and a pornographic storyteller.
The hatred of Lincoln sometimes crystallized into threats against his life. For instance, soon after the firing on Fort Sumter, he received from Mississippi a newspaper clipping in which a reward of $100,000 was offered for his "miserable traitorous head." Spontaneous rejoicing at his death, though perhaps more the exception than the rule in the Confederacy, was widespread. To a Georgia woman overcome with bewilderment and grief at Lee's surrender, the assassination came as "one sweet drop among so much that is painful." A Texas newspaper declared, "The world is happily rid of a monster that disgraced the form of humanity."
Such intensity of feeling was by no means confined to the rebellious South. The Civil War divided Northern and Border State Democrats into three factions: those who supported both the war and the Lincoln administration, thereby in effect changing their political allegiance; those who supported the war but opposed the administration, thus playing the classic role of "loyal opposition"; and those who opposed both the war and the administration, in some cases to the verge of treason. The latter two groups became the war and peace wings of the wartime Democratic party. Far apart in their basic attitudes toward the conflict itself, they could nevertheless agree in denouncing Lincoln for misuse of presidential power and subversion of the Constitution. They charged the administration with repressing civil liberties, with subverting the rights and powers of the states, and with transforming a war for defense of the Union into a revolutionary struggle for abolition and racial equality.
It was the progress toward emancipation that most infuriated Democratic and other conservative leaders. In their view, the same puritanical spirit of New England abolitionism that had disrupted the Union was dictating administration policy. On January 1, 1863, the day of the final Emancipation Proclamation, Benjamin R. Curtis, former Supreme Court justice, said Lincoln had been terrified and entirely subdued by the antislavery radicals. "He is shattered, dazed and utterly foolish," Curtis wrote. "It would not surprise me if he were to destroy himself." In 1864, the old Jacksonian, Amos Kendall, published a series of letters attacking the President. "Our federal Union," he declared, "is in more danger this day from Abraham Lincoln and the unprincipled and fanatical faction to whom he has surrendered himself, soul and body, than from all other causes combined."
Of course, the rankest abuse came from the copperheads, among whom none was more inventive in his vituperation than a Wisconsin editor, Marcus M. Pomeroy. Lincoln, he wrote, was "but the fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism"—indeed a "worse tyrant and more inhuman butcher than has existed since the days of Nero." As the election of 1864 approached, Pomeroy editorialized: "The man who votes for Lincoln now is a traitor and murderer... And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good."
Among the antislavery radicals, in contrast, Lincoln seemed the embodiment of timorous, vacillating conservatism—too inhibited by constitutional qualms, too solicitous about Border State feeling, too obliging to Democrats, especially in the appointment of generals, and much too cautious in his approach to emancipation. One must distinguish, of course, between the outright abolitionists and the radical free soilers who made up the left wing of the Republican party. However, once the war had begun, the two elements tended to merge because both were vehemently emancipationist. Yet within both groups, there was considerable difference of opinion about the man in the White House. For instance, after much early abuse of Lincoln, William Lloyd Garrison came around to urging the President'President'sion and re-election in 1864. Still, his fellow abolitionist Wendell Phillips refused to do likewise and gave his support instead to the abortive candidacy of John C. Fremont. Similarly, Charles Sumner, though often critical of Lincoln, maintained a delicate balance between friendship and opposition, whereas his senatorial colleague Benjamin F. Wade labeled the President a fool, led the radical attacks upon him in Congress, opposed his renomination, and regarded his assassination as a political blessing.
Lincoln's apparent conservatism on the slavery issue drew strong criticism from radicals as early as the fall of 1861. His revocation of Fremont's edict proclaiming emancipation in Missouri provoked a storm of recrimination that was renewed in May 1862 when he revoked a similar order issued by General David Hunter for South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. In a letter to another senator, Wade sneered that nothing better could be expected from a man of Southern antecedents and "poor white trash" at that. Frederick Douglass, the leading black abolitionist, declared in his monthly Magazine that Lincoln had become the "miserable tool of traitors and rebels" and had shown himself to be "a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred."
The Emancipation Proclamation won some antislavery radicals to Lincoln's side. Many others regarded him as such a poor excuse for a president that he ought to be replaced. His bitterest radical critic was the Maryland congressman Henry Winter Davis, co-author of the Wade-Davis manifesto, which charged the President Presidentuing "personal ambition" and exercising "dictatorial usurpation" while at the same time promoting "anarchy." When Lincoln was re-elected, Davis wrote to Admiral Samuel F. DuPont, "We must for four years more rely on the forcing process of Congress to wring from that old fool what can be gotten for the nation." In voting for Lincoln, he said the people had subordinated "disgust to the necessities of a crisis."
Radical hostility to Lincoln cut closest to the bone because so much of it came from the inner circles of his own party and even from his cabinet in the person of Salmon P. Chase, whose file of incoming letters is a storehouse of unreproved attacks on the President. The fierceness of such infighting is perhaps less surprising than the vehemence and malice with which Lincoln was criticized by much of the British press. The articulate portion of the British public became emotionally involved in the American Civil War for both material and symbolic reasons. The war had a disruptive effect upon the British economy, geared as it was to cotton manufacture. But Britons also recognized the struggle from its beginning as a test of the viability of democracy, that new social force which the English ruling class feared, which the United States represented before the world, and which Lincoln in background and style virtually caricatured.
Several conservative publications hastened to draw a lesson from the ordeal of the United States. "It is only by calamities so startling as this," said the Quarterly Review, "that men can be warned of the dangers with which democracy is surrounded." The principal British complaints against Lincoln were that he persisted unreasonably in waging a futile war of reconquest and that, in the process, he was fastening a dictatorship on the United States—all the while making bad jokes as he proceeded along his sanguinary course. With the election of 1864 approaching, the London Evening Standard called him a "foul-tongued and ribald punster" who was also the "most despicable tyrant of modern days." At about the same time, the Leeds Intelligencer denounced him as "that concentrated quintessence of evil, that Nero in the most shrunken ... form of idolatry, that flatulent and indecent jester." The language of the London Times was scarcely more restrained. Condemning the Emancipation Proclamation as an effort to incite murderous slave uprisings, it suggested that Lincoln might ultimately be classed "among that catalog of monsters, the wholesale assassins and butchers of their kind."
The Times viewed Lincoln's re-election in November 1864 as "an avowed step towards the foundation of a military despotism." The United States, it said, had "entered on that transition stage, so well known to the students of history, through which Republics pass on their way from democracy to tyranny." Yet, less than half a year later, the same newspaper told its readers, "Abraham Lincoln was as little of a tyrant as any man who ever lived."  What had intervened, of course, was Appomattox and the assassination.
One of the great Lincoln mysteries is the relationship between the man's martyrdom and his historical stature. Few would agree with the judgment once tossed out by Harry Elmer Barnes that Booth's shot made all the difference between a hero and a "discredited politician." But few would deny that the timing and manner of his death transformed the Lincoln image. The first sign of that transformation was the enormous outpouring of grief from the American people. It astonished men in public life and chastened some of them. Even Wendell Phillips concluded, just a few days after the assassination, "Lincoln had won such loving trust from the people that it was impossible to argue anything against him."
The apotheosis of Lincoln thus began as soon as he died. Savior of the Union, the liberator of a race, struck down on Good Friday in "the most impious murder done since Calvary," he was readily assimilated into the universal myths of the fallen hero and the dying god. Many of his critics at home and abroad hastened to revise their estimates of his worth and scramble, as it were, aboard the funeral train. There was Tom Taylor's famous recantation in Punch, for instance, and there was George Bancroft, who had earlier called the President "ignorant" and "incompetent," now delivering the principal funeral oration in New York City.
Republicans, radical and otherwise, soon learned what an asset they had in the dead Lincoln, and before long they had turned February 12 into a day for celebrating party loyalty. Northern Democrats, for the most part, acquiesced in and frequently participated in the enshrining of Lincoln. For example, Samuel S. Cox of Ohio had little good to say about the President during the war, but writing twenty years afterwards he called Lincoln "the peer of the purest and greatest men of whom history leaves a record."
Cox and other Democrats could identify with Lincoln by stressing his conservatism and his leniency toward the defeated Confederacy, thus dissociating him from the alleged excesses of Radical Reconstruction. Many Southerners came to terms with the Lincoln image along this same route. Even Jefferson Davis, while continuing to hold Lincoln responsible for starting the war, concluded that his death had been a great misfortune for the South. Southerners could also take comfort from some of Lincoln's remarks about race that seemed compatible with the developing post-Reconstruction system of segregation. And for progressive advocates of a "New South," such as the Georgia newspaper editor Henry W. Grady, an appreciation of Lincoln was part of the sectional reconciliation their aspirations required.
But for Southerners who bitterly regretted the failure of the Confederacy and looked back with painful nostalgia to their lost antebellum world, Lincoln remained a villain, one whom the poet Paul Hamilton Hayne was still described in 1871 as a "gawky, coarse, not over-cleanly, whisky-drinking, and whisky-smelling blackguard." Southerners devoted to the Lost Cause were the principal bearers of the anti-Lincoln tradition in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They found themselves losing ground, even in their own section, increasingly regarded as a cranky remnant of the past. Yet their case against Lincoln grew stronger, or so it seemed to them, as additional evidence emerged with the passing years.
To the end of the nineteenth century and beyond, knowledge about Lincoln was continually enriched by a flow of biographies and reminiscences from men who had known him with varying degrees of intimacy. Although the tone of this often dubious material was overwhelmingly laudatory, the personal revelations of some writers, notably William H. Herndon and Ward H. Lamon, provided welcome ammunition for the dwindling but resolute corps of Lincoln haters. Eagerly they seized upon assertions that Lincoln, among other things, had mocked Christianity, sold liquor in his grocery, told off-color stories, treated women with disrespect, admitted to Herndon that his mother was probably illegitimate, and suggested that a finger and thumb were as good as a handkerchief.
The anti-Lincoln tradition seems to have reached a low ebb during the decade from the grand centennial celebration of 1909 to the close of the First World War. Still, then it made a comeback in the 1920s, a time when Lincoln studies, in general, were entering their most brilliant era. One feature of the revival was a crusade to get pro-Northern history books out of Southern schools. Supporting that cause, the United Confederate Veterans in 1922 unanimously adopted a report which declared that the Civil War "was deliberately and personally conceived and its inauguration made by Abraham Lincoln." Immediately, there were angry responses from the G.A.R. and the Dames of the Loyal Legion.
The leader of the school-book crusade was Mildred Lewis Rutherford, historian-general of the Confederated Southern Memorial Association, who maintained that Southern children must be told the truth about Abraham Lincoln. Among the "truths" she purveyed in a series of pamphlets were these: that Lincoln was a slaveholder; that as a quartermaster in the Mexican War, he tried to starve American soldiers; that he contributed $100 to the support of John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry; and that Ulysses S. Grant, as commanding general of the Army, in 1867 imposed a forty-five-year censorship on all important newspapers, prohibiting any abuse of Lincoln.
By this time, however, the more learned and distinguished Lyon Gardiner Tyler had placed himself at the head of the anti-Lincoln cult. Retiring in 1918 from the presidency of the College of William and Mary, he established Tyler's Quarterly Historical and Genealogical Magazine. He edited it until his death on, of all days, February 12, 1935. Rare was the issue of the Magazine that did not contain some kind of attack upon what he regarded as an absurd and infamous myth. Tyler's Lincoln was ugly to look at, vulgar in his tastes, and filthy in his language. Often linked in honor with George Washington, he should instead be compared to George III, except that the latter, said Tyler, was a "kinder man." Tyler did not allow consistency to hamper his denunciations. On the one hand, Lincoln was the weakest, most vacillating, most incompetent President in history—one who took four years to win a war that should have been won in two. On the other hand, Lincoln was a mighty, satanic force in history, who, by his "blind will" alone, demolished the old Union, shattered the Constitution, and destroyed one million lives and twenty billion dollars worth of property.
Meanwhile, Lincoln's biography in the 1920s, still dominated by gifted amateurs like Carl Sandburg and Albert J. Beveridge, was being turned into professional channels. Two signals of the change were the conversion of the Abraham Lincoln Association into a research center and the publication of James G. Randall's first book, Constitutional Problems under Lincoln. Professionalization had the critical effect of drawing Lincoln's studies into the mainstream of American historiography so that interpretation of Lincoln became virtually inseparable from the interpretation of the Civil War.
Just then, as it happened, the theme of "revisionism" was about to become a major element in Civil War scholarship. To the revisionists, the war was an avoidable conflict—a tragedy brought on by the agitation of extremists and the blundering of politicians. Abolitionists and other antislavery radicals were the prime villains of the piece. At the same time, the heroes were those compromisers like Stephen A. Douglas and John J. Crittenden, who struggled valiantly to hold the Union together. The interpretation was plainly anti-Republican and thus, to a certain extent, anti-Lincoln. One can see its influence in a tendency toward the harsher judgment of Lincoln's antebellum career, first by Beveridge and later by historians like Richard Hofstadter, Donald W. Riddle, and Reinhard H. Luthin.
An especially pungent expression of revisionism, one that also reflected the "debunking" vogue of the 1920s, was the poet Edgar Lee Masters' experiment in character assassination, Lincoln the Man. Masters' Lincoln, a cold-hearted, under-sexed, intellectually lazy, cunning, devious, calculating, sophistical, unscrupulous, demagogic politician, forced the war treacherously and illegally upon the South, waged it cruelly, and in the process, "crushed the principles of free government." The book has, with good reason, been called a "copperhead biography."
Yet most revisionists, despite of their anti-Republican perspective, were remarkably tender in their treatment of Lincoln. Indeed, one of the leading revisionists, James G. Randall, was also one of the great Lincoln biographers and an admiring one. Randall managed this straddle by positioning Lincoln relatively close to the Douglas Democrats and as far as possible from the abolitionists and radical Republicans. Randall's well-known article, "The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln," is devoted almost entirely to the abuse of Lincoln by the wartime radicals. Thus revisionism, which obviously had much in common with the views expressed by Samuel S. Cox and other Northern Democrats during the Civil War, nevertheless tended, like Cox in the postwar period, to come to terms with the heroic image of Lincoln.
Soon, however, a more aggressive challenge to that image did come from another quarter—that is, from what amounted to a revival of the radical wing of the anti-Lincoln tradition. The Old Left, including Socialists and Communists, had assimilated Lincoln to its ideals and aspirations. But the New Left and the black power militants of the 1960s found little in him to admire. Compared with Wendell Phillips or Charles Sumner, he seemed unheroic, opportunistic, and uninspired by deep moral commitment. Instead of the "Great Emancipator," suggested I. F. Stone, he might better be called the "Great Equivocator." This "tragically flawed figure," said Lerone Bennett, Jr., a senior editor of Ebony magazine, "shared the racial prejudices of most of his white contemporaries." On every issue related to blacks, he was "the very essence of the white supremacist with good intentions." He came to emancipation reluctantly, under radical pressure, and, indeed, according to some cynics, may have "issued the Proclamation to forestall more forcible action by Congress." That is, his real intention may have been to prevent effective emancipation.
In their use of evidence to support such judgments, radical writers were biased, selective, and often uncritical. Furthermore, they generally paid little attention to the limits of circumstance within which Lincoln had to work and the variety of considerations claiming his attention—such as the plain fact that proclaiming emancipation would have been a waste of time without military victory. But then, the radicals of the 1960s were interested less in scholarly fairness than in making history serve the social causes to which they had committed themselves. And there was nothing new or corrupt in that point of view. The past is not an exclusive preserve of historians. It may legitimately be used to inspire social action. Lincoln himself did so, and Jefferson, too, with spectacular success in the Declaration of Independence. The ethical problem arises when social polemics masquerade as historical scholarship, and that was sometimes the case in New Left evaluations of Lincoln.
Meanwhile, the Southern version of the anti-Lincoln tradition continued to flourish. One finds expressions of it in private correspondence as well as in speeches and publications. For example, in the 1920s, Hamilton J. Eckenrode of the University of Virginia wrote to Albert J. Beveridge, calling Lincoln "an unscrupulous politician of overmastering ambition" with "utter want of principle" and "indescribable hypocrisy." As for emancipation, "the chief result of the liberation of the negro race has been the political paralysis of half the country and the general weakening of the nation."
In 1937, Charles W. Ramsdell, a native Texan teaching at the University of Texas, presented the classic statement of the already familiar thesis that Lincoln deliberately "maneuvered the Confederates into firing the first shot" at Fort Sumter so that they would receive the blame for starting a war that he wanted. A book-length reiteration of the thesis in more intemperate language was published four years later by an Alabama attorney, John S. Tilley.
In 1947, a few dozen Southerners who had gathered in Statuary Hall of the National Capitol to celebrate the birthday of Jefferson Davis found themselves listening to what a Time correspondent called "a historical Pickett's charge." It was delivered by the guest speaker, "sallow, hawk-nosed Dr. Charles S. Tansill, Texas-born history professor at ... Georgetown University." Characterizing Lincoln as a "do-nothing" soldier, "invincible in peace and invisible in war," Tansill accused him of precipitating hostilities by tricking the Confederates into their attack on Sumter. The most prominent person in the audience, Representative John Rankin of Mississippi, left discreetly as soon as possible, muttering that the professor had gone "too far" and that it was time to "draw the mantle of charity over all that."
In 1959, soon after Brown v. Board of Education had inaugurated the "Second Reconstruction," there appeared a book comparing Lincoln and Jefferson Davis written by Russell Hoover Quynn, the son of a Confederate veteran from Maryland. Quynn was almost apoplectic in his hatred for Lincoln, whom he called the country's first "dictator," and in his determination to defend that "civilized, beneficial, humane" arrangement that was mislabeled "slavery." "The real monument to the Great Emancipator," he wrote, "is the maiming of the United States Constitution ... and the imposition upon the nation of a Negro race problem that progressively grows."
More recently, the neo-Confederate attack on Lincoln has been carried forward by Ludwell H. Johnson of the College of William and Mary, principally in a series of articles. Echoing and elaborating on one of Lyon Gardiner Tyler's favorite arguments, Johnson maintains that the great mystery of the Civil War is not why the South lost, but rather, why the North, with its "enormous material and numerical superiority," took so long to win. His answer is the inferiority of Northern leadership from the presidency down and the profound political composition of Northern society. According to Johnson, Lincoln was essentially a politician and little more, a man for whom "political imperatives were moral imperatives," even when that meant blinking at corruption and incompetence. Lincoln's primary aim, says Johnson, was a political one—to make the Republican party "a permanent majority in the nation"—and this political purpose impeded and tainted the conduct of the war.
In an article comparing the Union and Confederate presidents, Johnson finds Davis "clearly superior" to Lincoln as a war leader. He was more dignified, decisive, and willing to accept responsibility. He made wiser appointments, had a better strategic sense, maintained a stronger cabinet, handled his generals with greater skill, was more effective as a legislative manager, and kept his military policies free from the contamination of politics. Indeed, according to Johnson, Davis was one of the most remarkable Americans of all time and has been denied his rightful place in history because he happened to be on the losing side. "Nothing succeeds like success," Johnson observes more than once. The comparison between Lincoln and Davis would have turned out quite differently if the South had won its independence, he argues. "Suppose the French had not come to the rescue of the Patriots, and the British had crushed the American bid for independence? What would be George Washington's reputation?" The answer is that, in those circumstances, Washington would have been fortunate to come out with a reputation as high as that of Robert E. Lee (for Lee, rather than Davis, is obviously the Civil War analog of Washington). Johnson never even confronts the interesting question of why defeat should have had a disastrous effect on Davis's historical stature as a political leader but not on Lee's stature as a military leader.
Furthermore, Johnson's whole argument proves to be ultimately self-destructive. Suppose we accept all of his assertions at face value. In that case, the greatest mystery of the Civil War is this: How could Jefferson Davis and his associates have been so stupid as to get involved in a war that, according to Johnson, they had not the slightest chance of winning—not even against an enemy that was governed and commanded, according to Johnson, with pitiful incompetence?
Even fiercer than Johnson in his hostility to Lincoln is M. E. Bradford, a Texas-born, Vanderbilt-trained professor of English at the University of Dallas. Bradford's views reflect not only his Southern background but also his intellectual conservatism in the tradition of Russell Kirk, Eric Voegelin, and Willmoore Kendall. The Lincoln portrayed by Bradford in a series of articles is a demagogue, a "country hustler," a "self-made Caesar"—cold and calculating in his ambition, dishonest in his rhetoric, and unscrupulous in his use of power—a man who precipitated Civil War waged it inhumanely, spurned efforts to end it by negotiation, put political considerations ahead of the lives and welfare of his soldiers, and secured his own re-election by illegitimate military force.
Unlike Johnson, whose depreciation of Lincoln's abilities and achievements has the effect of reducing his historical significance, Bradford sees a figure of towering influence who catastrophically changed the course of American history. Bradford's Lincoln was the prime agent of a "gnostic" revolution that imposed the reform imperatives of New England Puritanism upon American politics, thereby destroying the old Union of sovereign states and setting the nation on the road to totalitarianism. Lincoln, in short, is America's Cromwell. He created the imperial presidency and converted the national government into a "juggernaut," all the while "wrapping up his policy in the idiom of Holy Scripture, concealing within the Trojan Horse of his gasconade and moral superiority an agenda that would never have been approved if presented in any other form." Bradford frequently gets tipsy from his own rhetoric in this way, and tender concern for historical accuracy never impedes his rush to judgment. But in the intensity of his conviction, he is a worthy heir and custodian of the anti-Lincoln tradition.
In the late twentieth century, it has become increasingly difficult to separate the tradition of more casual and impersonal criticism of Lincoln from the mainstream of Lincoln scholarship. Of course, the very extravagance of the Lincoln legend invites attack from trained historians and professional iconoclasts like Gore Vidal. Not without admiration for Lincoln, the consummate politician, Vidal recently trained his guns upon what he calls "the Sandburg-Mt. Rushmore Lincoln ... a solemn gloomy cuss, who speaks only in iambic pentameter, a tear forever at the corner of his eye—the result, no doubt, of being followed around by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir which keeps humming 'the Battle Hymn of the Republic.'" In his presentation of the "real" Lincoln, Vidal then repeats and embroiders one of Herndon's sleazier quasi-recollections. Lincoln, it seems, caught syphilis as a young man and later infected his wife, who eventually succumbed to paresis, but not before infecting three of their children, each of whom died prematurely as a consequence—and all of which may explain why he frequently fell into fits of melancholy. So much for Gore the Myth-slayer.
A modern interpretation of Lincoln has been profoundly affected by the practice of history as a discipline and by the progress of history as a human experience. The expanding professionalization of Lincoln's studies has produced greater variety and sophistication in the assessment of his character, motives, conduct, and influence. Most notably, at present, the exploration of Lincoln's inner life is being revolutionized by the application of insights and analytic techniques drawn from other disciplines, especially psychology and literary criticism. The emerging portrait is a composite of scholarship revealing a mixture of faults and virtues, mistakes and achievements. It has become a less coherent and less heroic portrait, perhaps more meaningful in our unheroic, troubled age.
Although the overall effect remains favorable to Lincoln, some of the new scholarly writing does lend intellectual support to the anti-Lincoln persuasion, usually without also pledging emotional allegiance. For example, a recent article in Civil War History finds that Lincoln, in lifting the suppression of the Chicago Times, was governed entirely by political considerations and displayed no concern about freedom of the press. Another essay in the same journal argues that in the presidential campaign of 1860, Lincoln would have been vulnerable to an attack upon his vaunted honesty and that such an attack, if the Democrats had only been clever enough to organize it, might very well have cost him the election. Still, another case in point is George B. Forgie's psychohistorical study, Patricide in the House Divided, wherein it is maintained that Lincoln unconsciously willed and promoted the crisis of the Union as his only escape from the psychological dilemma of revering the founding fathers while at the same time resenting their historic pre-emption of the pathways to renown. Similarly, Dwight G. Anderson presents a "demonic" Lincoln who, "by acting on his motive of revenge against constitutional fathers for having preempted the field of glory," became the "very tyrant against whom Washington had warned in his Farewell Address, a tyrant who would preside over the destruction of the Constitution in order to gratify his own ambition."
Forgie and Anderson have both followed the lead of Edmund Wilson but with a significant difference. Wilson, some sixty years ago, first suggested that Lincoln, when he discussed the danger of dictatorship in his Lyceum speech, was projecting himself into the role of the "towering genius" whose craving for distinction might one day pose a mortal threat to the political system erected by the founding fathers. Forgie, in a variant version, maintains that Lincoln suppressed any such subversive thoughts and cast Stephen A. Douglas as the destructive genius, with himself as the prospective savior of the nation. By thus inventing a villain and summoning up an illusive danger, he set the stage for the disruption of the Union.
Anderson, adhering more closely to the Wilson theory, portrays Lincoln as a man hounded by anxieties about death and, therefore, hungry for the immortality of historical renown but embittered by the failure of his congressional career. This Lincoln, driven by ambition, self-hatred, and a desire for revenge, determines to assume the role of revolutionary leader and tyrant. "Denied the opportunity of 'building up,'" says Anderson, "this ambitious genius 'would set boldly to the task of pulling down.'" Lincoln's "malignant passions" were unleashed in the Fort Sumter crisis when he maneuvered the South into striking the first blow. Quickly arrogating to himself "virtually dictatorial powers as president," he also began to erect a civil religion with himself as God's appointed instrument for saving the Union. In this manner, he provided the ideological rationale whereby the United States in the twentieth century would make its disastrous attempt to become a lawgiver to the entire world.
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."
By Don E. Fehrenbacher
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.