Saturday, February 10, 2007

Clyde Wilson: The Lincoln Fable, Part II

In this photo made available by Rudinec and Associates, Norman Rockwell's painting, "Lincoln the Railsplitter" is shown.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Alas! it is delusion all;
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.

—Lord Byron

There are a couple of curious aspects of the Lincoln story that are worth mentioning here. The two men who knew Lincoln best, Herndon, his longtime law partner, and Lamon, his confidential agent during the war, both ridiculed the Lincoln fable that was being created in their time. To them Lincoln was no saint; he was the tough, cunning politician who carried off the difficult feat of consolidating the Republican coup d’etat. Another curious thing is that Lincoln’s son destroyed vast quantities of his father’s papers, which were never seen by anyone except the two adoring secretaries/biographers Nicolay and Hay. One must wonder why. You would think that every scrap of paper associated with such an important and revered figure would be cherished. That is normally the case. If you had a slip of paper with an authentic Lincoln signature on it, you could put it on the market today for $5,000 to start.


Known facts about Lincoln, both as a public and as a private man, contradict or seriously undermine the fable at every point. What I have to say does not include any amazing discoveries or brilliant insights. It is simply information that has long been known. Establishment historians either deny the obvious or are, as Professor Thomas DiLorenzo has pointed out, fabulously creative in finding excuses. James G. Randall, once known as the leading Lincoln scholar, admitted that, yes, Lincoln was something of a dictator. But that was all right because he was only dictatorial when he had to be, and the power could not have been in safer hands. Lincoln is not a question of evidence and reason; he is a question of Faith. To question the Faith is like flushing the Koran in front of a Muslim.

Lincoln never looked like a handsome young Henry Fonda or Raymond Massey even at his best. His face was partly deformed, he had a degenerative disease, and his arms and legs, as everybody noticed, were too long for his trunk, almost to the point of grotesqueness, which is why Stanton called him “the Gorilla.” Besides, he had been kicked in the head by a horse or a mule and ever after had frequent doddering blackouts, though usually lasting only a few seconds.

Despite ten thousand Mother’s Day sermons about the tender and loving son, Lincoln callously walked away from his natal family and never looked back. At times his wife drove him from the house in a rage, and she ended up in an insane asylum suffering mental and physical deterioration that have been described as resembling advanced syphilis. On the record, Lincoln was no poster boy for son, husband, or father. According to the fable Lincoln suffered greatly from the tragic early death of his first love. There is no evidence whatsoever for the Ann Rutledge story. However, we do know that Lincoln cold-bloodedly jilted one lady when he found another of higher status. Even then, he stood up the new fiance at the altar the first time.

The fable presents us with a pious, praying, saintly Ole Abe, a rail-splitter of humble birth, rather resembling a well-known Carpenter of similar background, and who also was martyred on Good Friday and wafted to Heaven by flights of angels. So far as we know the real Lincoln was an agnostic who was a prolific retailer of dirty stories and who cynically made his political speeches sound like the King James Bible. One of the few evidences of belief he showed was in the Second Inaugural when he blamed the war on God, for whom Humble Abe Lincoln was but an innocent instrument.

Then, there is Honest Abe, the poor boy who made good through earnest effort and integrity. He was born in a log cabin. Big deal. Most people were born in log cabins in those days and many very successful men were self-educated. Lincoln’s rival Stephen Douglas was born in a log cabin in Vermont and walked all the way to Illinois. He became a successful lawyer without the prestigious sponsorship of well-connected Southern families that Lincoln enjoyed. But a public that fell for “Horatio Alger” was ripe for a log cabin spiel. Lincoln was not the country lawyer who defended the poor widow whose cow had been killed by the railroad. He was the attorney for the railroad and a rich man. That his career was somehow in defense of the “common man” is concocted political propaganda endlessly repeated as a fact. His success as a lawyer was based on a mastery of cunning tactics with juries, not on deep and noble learning.

Then there is the young prairie idealist whose integrity and potential greatness was sensed by the people, who propelled him forward into leadership despite his humility. In fact, according to Herndon, ambition—a relentless, almost pathological ambition—was the dominant trait of Lincoln’s character. No one was ever elected to the Presidency before or since who was more unknown and with less real popular support. After all, 60 per cent of “the people” voted against him. He rose by mastering all the mechanics of politics—packing and manipulating conventions, secretly buying up newspapers, meeting vital issues with elegant sounding but ambiguous positions. Idealist? David Davis, whom Lincoln appointed to the Supreme Court, said that Lincoln was “the most secretive man I ever knew,” an observation supported by others. What we have here is not an idealist but a self-taught and very talented Machiavellian.

In fact, Lincoln calculated and dissimulated even more than is normal for ambitious politicians. One of the reasons we have trouble understanding how bad it was is that he permanently debased the standards of public discourse so that we now take for granted things that were egregious innovations in his day. Lincoln admitted he named his chief rivals in the party to his cabinet so he could keep his eye on them. This is now regarded as clever and amusing. Washington and Jefferson would have regarded it as corrupt and dishonourable. Lincoln drove even his admirers and supporters mad with his habit of never answering a question, but instead proffering a humorous story. This again is now regarded as cute and clever. Can you imagine Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, or Jefferson Davis conducting his public duties this way?

Lincoln fits quite well the personality type that has been described as the Crackpot Realist. A crackpot realist is one who believes that everyone is just as cynical and self-serving as he is, and in knowing that and being clever, he can manipulate others to his advantage. That well describes Lincoln’s legal career and his relationship to the voters. Lincoln in Illinois: I have neither the intention nor the power to interfere with slavery. I would not know what to do if I had the power. Lincoln in New York: A house divided against itself cannot stand. It must become all one thing or all the other. What exactly is your position on the slavery controversy, Mr. Lincoln? Well, that reminds me of the story about the farmer and the pig . . . Lincoln was not against slavery; he was just in favor of reducing Southern political power so that the South could not block politicians and capitalists from looting the Treasury and defend itself from exploitation or interference.

I think Lincoln’s crackpot realism caught up with him in the secession crisis. He really thought, and his party certainly preached to the Northern public, that Southerners were not serious about secession. He thought they were merely using maneuver and rhetoric for advantage, which was his own method and his only conception of politics. He did not understand that Southern leaders came from an older world in which a man said what he meant and meant what he said. Lincoln believed that firmness and perhaps a little show of force would bring the South to accept what he regarded as realism and after awhile buckle under to the fait accompli. Refusing any sort of negotiation, he maneuvered for an excuse for force. When he got Fort Sumter he called for troops. The call for troops immediately more than doubled the population and resources of the Confederacy, put the border states into bloody play, and guaranteed a loing and horrible war. One must conclude that this great wise and all-seeing statesman either wanted the war or else he made the most terrible miscalculation in American history.

(to be continued)

This article was drawn from a paper presented at the Abbeville Institute conference on “Re-Thinking Lincoln,” July 7-15 at Franklin, Louisiana. Audiotapes of this and presentations by Thomas DiLorenzo, Donald Livingston, H.A. Scott Trask, Joseph Stromberg, and others can be obtained from

Clyde Wilson is a professor of history at the University of South Carolina, editor of
The Papers of John C. Calhoun, author of Carolina Cavalier, and a contributing
editor for Chronicles.


Anonymous said...

"There is no evidence whatsoever for the Ann Rutledge story."

Except, of course, from Herndon (whom the author himself acknowledges knew Lincoln better than nearly anyone; who also interviewed Lincoln's New Salem friends and Rutledge's family), from Isaac Cogdal, another old friend, as well as John Y. Simon, the respected Civil War historian who studied the evidence himself.

Anonymous said...

Unless you take into account the fact that Herndon hated Mary Todd Lincoln & could have very easily been motivated to seriously exaggerate the relationship. At the time it would have been very easy to have a lie perpetuated and never challenged as opposed to current times where information is simply a search engine away.