What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Lincolnian ambivalence.

Allen Guelzo of Gettysburg College is emphatically not of two minds about the Abraham Lincoln. Writing in The Claremont Review of Books, he laments Conservative ambivalence about, and castigates Conservative antipathy for, this same Lincoln who bulks so big in our history. While I share Guelzo’s impatience with Lincoln-hatred, it just won’t do to conflate ambivalence and antipathy. He cites, for instance, Willmoore Kendall’s judgment (argued most extensively in Basic Symbols of the American Tradition) that Lincoln “derailed” the American political tradition by replacing the Constitution (i.e., self-government) with the Declaration of Independence (i.e., equality) — and, what’s more, with a single passage from the latter document, at the expense of the rest of it. This would seem to locate Kendall among the Lincoln-haters, a strange place to locate a man who also named Lincoln as standing among Shakespeare, Milton and Burke — the great masters of the English language and rhetoric.

In short, there is hatred of Lincoln, which Guelzo rightly censures; and there is ambivalence about him. The two are not the same; and the project to establish a rigid orthodoxy of unqualified approbation is one unworthy of Prof. Guelzo. In my admittedly amateur judgment, Lincoln, like many a great man, is too much of an enigma to merit unqualified anything. One writer (could it have been our own Zippy, some years ago?) once referred to Honest Abe as a “Calvinist agnostic.” The phrase alone, which only appears facile, is a virtual treatise on the mystery of the statesman and the man.

I’ll conclude this mere sketch of an argument with a little anecdote. Some years ago I called my wife over to read through an essay I had just completed, which included a long quotation from Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. I believe the topic was the rule of law — in the context of judiciary usurpation or immigration or something like that. She read it carefully, paused, and said, “pretty good, Paul, but I like Lincoln’s part best.”

So do I. So do I.

Comments (5)

I hesitate to comment, as I'm woefully ignorant of Kendall (an ignorance I should remedy). But it seems to me worth pointing out that to list Lincoln with Shakespeare et. al. as a master of English language and rhetoric really is to say very little about his character or about the evaluation of his presidency. One could think his character very bad and his presidency an unmitigated disaster and still say all of that about him as a rhetor, and perhaps even gnash one's teeth over him the more, as his rhetorical genius then would have been used to further such bad ends. Not that I'm attributing these views to Kendall. They're almost certainly not his. I'm just pointing out that what you cite re. Kendall's other views of Lincoln really don't answer the claim that he was a Lincoln-hater or to some degree deliberately furthered Lincoln hatred or at least major Lincoln-bashing.

Quite true, Lydia.

To place the Kendall judgment further in context:

(a) It came in the midst of a profound, and on balance positive review of Harry Jaffa's Crisis of the House Divided, a book of unquestioned adoration of Lincoln.

(b) It really cannot be supposed that Kendall sympathized with the secessionist view of the Constitution; his veneration of the original document and Union was simply too deep and vivid to allow such a contradition.

Ambivalent is a perfectly fair description of his view of Lincoln. But to leave the impression that ambivalence may be conflated with hostility, as I fear Prof. Guelzo's essay does, is the thing I wanted to register an objection to.

I am beginning to wonder if the reason we struggle so mightily with Lincoln is that his impact looms like a specter over American history in a manner that far surpasses the actual man. Even the way we perceive the office of president today is so flawed in comparison to the office and position that Lincoln held. I was reading James L. Swanson’s Manhunt last night and I was struck by the fact that having access to the President for the purposes of killing him was a simple thing. Swanson comments that Booth could have just walked up to the White House and asked to see the Lincoln and given Booth’s celebrity status he would very probably been invited right in for a chat. Richard Zacks had made a similar observation about Thomas Jefferson, that at that time you could stroll up to the President’s residence, knock on the door, and Jefferson himself was just as likely to answer the door and favor you with an audience. My point is that the office and position is so infused with awe and power today it can be hard to remember that it was decidedly not so then. His unquestioned impact combined with our natural respect for his office compels us to parse through everything about the guy trying to figure out what he was. Hero or villain? Saint or Scoundrel? Was he abused by his wife? Was he a Christian? And the most passionate observers will not tolerate ambivalence or apathy on the issue because to not care is to not understand the immensity of his presidency.

I appreciate your point, that it is possible to be ambivalent toward Lincoln without categorically being a detractor. Still even now I have to delete the massive text I was writing for my natural desire to discuss him. ;-)

"the project to establish a rigid orthodoxy of unqualified approbation is one unworthy of Prof. Guelzo."

Well, Dr. Guelzo's book on Lincoln after all names him the 'Redeemer President,' which is a bit of a giveaway as to where he stands. I don't hate Lincoln, but I will not offer a pinch of incense at the Lincoln Memorial. That's what some of these folks seem to want us to do, but there is much about Lincoln and his policies that I as a conservative find problematic.

By the way, Guelzo's characterizations of the conservative ambivalence towards Lincoln are themselves quite questionable and rather simplistic and one-sided. Furthermore, the implication that all Lincoln-criticizing has as its root crypto-racism is something that I find troubling.

It seems strange to have tripped over this comment-thread three years after it was initiated, but better late than never. Let me correct a few misapprehensions: (a) I am not a Lincoln-worshipper, in the sense that I believe he never erred or thought of erring. There are a number of aspects of his presidency which show serious weaknesses, and I have not been backward in pointing those out. (b) Kendall's antipathy to Lincoln really did run deeply, although it also has to be said that some parts of that antipathy were generated by Kendall's distaste for Progressives who had tried to adopt Lincoln as one of their own. Jason Jiveden's recent book, Claiming Lincoln (2011), is, I think, a good analysis of how Progressives from Theo. Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson misappropriated the Lincoln image, and how conservatives like Kendall mistook the hostage (Lincoln) for one of the bank-robbers and opened fire. I do wish that my appraisal really was "simplistic and one-sided"; but you have only to listen to Meyer, Bradford, DiLorenzo and Ron Paul on the subject of Lincoln to find out what "simplistic and one-sided" really look like (c) The phrase 'Redeemer President' was taken from Walt Whitman, and was intended to underscore the irony of a man hailed for "redeeming" the nation, but who himself had no faith in redemption. In fact, I say this in the conclusion. At no place in the book do I propose that Lincoln died for our sins.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.