Memory  /  Book Review

Why We Keep Reinventing Abraham Lincoln

Revisionist biographers have given us countless perspectives, from Honest Abe to Killer Lincoln. Is there a version that’s true to his time and attuned to ours?
David S. Reynolds

Reynolds’s macro-history and Blumenthal’s micro-history coincide in their vindication of Lincoln as a profound radical. Lincoln was a single-issue candidate and a single-cause politician; that issue was slavery and the cause was its abolition. But he was a politician, not a polemicist: he created a broad coalition and placated its parts. He was a pluralist rather than a purist.

His central understanding, registered in his home base of Springfield—where, Reynolds shows, there was a lot more African-American political activism than has often been imagined—was that racist Northerners who could not be driven to equality could still be coaxed toward humanity. Abolition annealed to a broader “Americanism”—an understanding of equality as rooted in the sacred documents of the country—might produce emancipation. This was an insight that Lincoln, with Machiavellian shrewdness, drove to an armed point. Lincoln was not a centrist politician who happened to find himself on top of an erupting volcano in 1861; his election caused the eruption. As Blumenthal shows, Lincoln, in his 1858 debates with the racist senator Stephen Douglas, tactically conceded points about segregation: “I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife.” But he was emphatic on the central point, that “there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.”

In a speech in Peoria, Lincoln declared, about the indifference toward slavery he saw in Congress, “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world . . . and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty.” Reynolds, quoting this passage, remarks that “Lincoln’s loathing of slavery comes through as strongly here as it does in any work by the most radical abolitionist.” What separated Lincoln from most other abolitionists was the absence of rhetoric that was intended to frighten as much as teach—what Reynolds calls “dark reform” rhetoric—or that catalogued, graphically but accurately, the physical horrors inflicted by slave masters.

This wasn’t because Lincoln did not know of these horrors. It was because he understood that moving the masses of the North to abolition could be done only by appealing to fundamental principles—reminding them that their own values were being violated, not merely another group’s interests. Reynolds writes that Lincoln, aware of the risks of the kind of nihilistic bloodletting that John Brown would produce, directed “this potentially anarchistic cultural current into two documents treasured by most Americans: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” By linking the fight against slavery to the extension of these documents, rather than to their repudiation, he could build a truly broad antislavery coalition—and an army brutal enough to enforce its mission. Every act of his Presidency, from the gathering of the militias to the speech at Gettysburg, moved toward this end.