Sean Wilentz on Lincoln, Obama, and the Virtues of Politics

Chris Beneke

2009 marks the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and there has been a predictable outpouring of books on this most esteemed of U.S. presidents. At nearly 25,000 words, Sean Wilentz’s essay review in The New Republic (“Who Lincoln Was” July 15, 2009) offers an authoritative and trenchant summary of seven of them. Though it echoes themes in the work of other historians such as James Oakes, James McPherson, and the late David Herbert Donald, the article stakes out interpretive territory that is distinctly Wilentz’s. A renowned historian of antebellum America, Wilentz is the author of books on the emergence of New York’s working class and, more recently, The Rise of American Democracy, and The Age of Reagan. He is also well known for his outspoken support for Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential race and his firm opposition to candidate Barack Obama. His latest New Republic review combines elements of both deep historical research and cutting political analysis. It is at once a brief for unapologetically empirical history and for the efficacy of politics and political experience—and implicitly conjures one of the key moments in the Obama-Clinton contest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Wilentz ‘s critique of the latest Lincoln scholarship takes on what he calls the “standard two Lincolns approach,” whereby a cautious and relatively conservative politician is transformed (by the trauma of war and personal tragedy, by abolitionist rhetoric, by something he read, etc.) into a man of deep feeling and unimpeachable liberal values. Wilentz suggests that such a dramatic conversion never took place—Lincoln had long been a determined opponent of slavery. Of course, Wilentz doesn’t deny that Lincoln’s views evolved over time. As he sees it, however, it was not so much Lincoln’s principles as the possibility of their application that changed. Wilentz’s portrait of Lincoln resembles James McPherson’s portrait of the Union soldier. Patient and tenacious, it was his un-spectacular political groundwork, his pragmatic willingness to advance where possible and retreat when necessary, that accounts for the success of Lincoln’s subtle, long-term campaign against slavery. In sum: “[p]ure-hearted radicals did not manipulate him into nobility as much as he manipulated them to suit his own political aims—which, as president, were to save the Union and insure that freedom and not slavery, would prevail in the struggle of the house divided.”

Wilentz is unsparing in his treatment of psychological and literary interpretations of Lincoln that appear to him as scholarly Mugwumpery—assembled by academics too good for the messiness of ordinary democratic politics. The problem, according to Wilentz, rests with those who would ignore the political context in which Lincoln operated, as well as Lincoln’s own persistent politicking. Prominent Harvard prof Henry Louis Gates comes off as an historical dilettante (“quoting friends and putative authorities … all the way from Harvard to The New Yorker”), while Gates’ colleague John Stauffer’s otherwise well regarded book on Lincoln and Douglass is lambasted for employing the trope of “performative cross-racial self-fashioning” at the expense of the available evidence. Treating Lincoln as a literary figure, or worse, as the dull instrument of unbesmirched radicals, Wilentz argues, distorts the facts and demeans Lincoln.

There are unmistakable and unhidden echoes of a critique of candidate and President Barack Obama (or at least his most avid supporters) throughout this review, which Wilentz addresses frankly in the conclusion. Wilentz does pause between his historical analysis and his concluding remarks on modern politics to offer an olive branch of sorts: “Our president [italics added] is hardly the innocent that he tries to appear to be, but it is precisely his intensely political character, the political cunning that lies behind all his ‘transcendence’ of politics, that makes him Lincolnian; and it comes as a great relief from the un-Lincolnian sanctimony that surrounds his image.” But left-liberal perspectives, Wilentz maintains, elide the important differences: “Lincoln, unlike Obama, started out in life dirt poor, and lacked any opportunity to attend an elite private high school and then earn degrees at Columbia College and Harvard Law School.” The “mythologizing and aestheticizing” of both men substitutes a fashionable illusion for a complicated reality. Lincoln and Obama are alike, Wilentz contends, but not in the ways that literary scholars and progressives would have us believe. Lincoln could not have been as stridently principled as Frederick Douglass and still achieved what he did; and neither can our current president.

The question left unanswered is how much Lincoln’s achievements required the unremitting idealism of a Douglass—both as a political foil to his own compromises and as a personal spur to principled action. As James Oakes showed in a book that Wilentz praises, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, political maneuvering is seldom sufficient to produce the kind of change that the Civil War era wrought.