The late Richard Current, sometime professor of history at UNC-Greensboro, wrote a fascinating book called “The Lincoln Nobody Knows.” The “nobody” of the title was gross exaggeration in Current’s case. As a major Lincoln biographer, he had certainly forgotten more about the Civil War president than most of us know, or knew.
I thought of that under-read classic when the Trump Republicans convened in Cleveland, for recent developments in Republicanism have reduced the Lincoln legacy to a shadow. And what has taken the place of history is vapid sentiment, much of it maudlin and fictitious. As is assuredly the case in the complex matter of race.
It is a fact that when Lincoln became the party’s second presidential nominee in 1860, he was a prosperous railroad lawyer and conservative Whig – which is to say that he was no friend of the new party’s radical abolitionists, who scorned him and worshipped the firebrand John Brown. It is fair to say that there was not so much as a single “radical” bone in Lincoln’s body, and his racial attitudes were likewise conservative. He despised slavery, for all the good reasons, and is remembered, fairly enough, as the Great Emancipator. But as Lincoln told a delegation who visited him in the White House, it was his personal belief that the white and black races would never live together in harmony and that the best policy would be the peaceful return of the latter to Africa.
Moreover, had it been left to Lincoln’s personal preferences, the Civil War, if fought at all, would have been a limited police action to subdue rebellious secessionists; for, as was memorably said by his friend and adversary Alexander Stephens, Unionism rose to the level of religious mysticism. That view was far more passionate than his views on race and slavery. The proof lies in his conciliatory offer, following his election, to support a constitutional amendment guaranteeing slavery where it had traditionally existed – as well as in his famous statement to Horace Greeley that if he could preserve the union by keeping the slaves in bondage he would do so.
The Southern hotheads scorned his olive branches. They demanded the “right,” established in their eyes by the Dred Scott decision of 1857, to take their chattels everywhere and anywhere –even into Northern and Midwestern hotbeds of abolitionist sentiment, and to pursue runaway slaves in the same places with the assistance of federal and even local arms. So emancipation shortly became his only remaining defense against European intervention possibly ruinous to the Union.
So poorly is American history taught that most popular ideas about Lincoln are fuzzy and sentimental. “The Lincoln nobody knows” is a fact – and a national embarrassment.
I have no idea what the new-minted Trump Republicans recall, or think they recall, about the titular founder of their party – probably very little. I am virtually certain that Lincoln, unlike Trump and other “birthers” who question Barack Obama’s presidential eligibility, would have welcomed his election as a long stride forward in the effort to redeem decades of slavery and segregation. The GOP legacy was already gravely damaged by Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern strategy” before Trump seized it, and it has suffered all along from the party’s drift toward old-fashioned white supremacy, in all but name. In any case, 2016 Republicanism is a far cry from Lincoln’s.
The core of the problem, insofar as it consists of myth and misunderstanding, is exemplified by the fact – if it is a fact – that, notwithstanding countless excellent books, Carl Sandburg’s flaccid biography is the most widely read account. The critic Edmund Wilson tartly observed of that work that “there has undoubtedly been written about (Lincoln) more romantic and sentimental rubbish than about any other American figure ... and there are moments when one is tempted to feel that the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
A sad fate for a noble and fascinating subject.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.