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The Lincoln Myth


ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

Lincoln, The Man. By Edgar Lee Masters. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company. $5.00. Lincoln the Politician. By Don C. Seitz. New York: Coward-McCann, $4.00. New Letters and Papers of Lincoln. Compiled by Paul M. Angle. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.00. Europe and the American Civil War. By Donaldson Jordan and Edward J. Pratt. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $4.00.

It was a long time before the four years of battling between the North and the South could be regarded through other than romantic eyes. Only recently has certain historical research demanded a re-interpretation of the struggle in the terms of modern industrial America. The reasons for this are very strong. The victors, as they were constructing the myths which would sustain their power, managed to withdraw all the virtue into their camp. The seceding states, as a very important part of these myths, were painted in the most uncomplimentary colors. They were rebels, slave-drivers, stubborn, ambitious, bent on destroying a great nation for a purely selfish reason. In the face of this the Southern people kept silent and went about their business of binding together the fragments of their wrecked establishment. They did not argue; they made no defense when they were charged as the criminals responsible for the catastrophe; for, having failed in the final argument of battle, they appreciated the futility of saying anything further. But at last many of the generals and lawyer statesmen deserted their plantations and moved to town to become bank presidents or to sit on directors’ boards of railroads. The next generation also, lacking the memory which had sustained their fathers’ aloofness, made overtures to the industrially-growing North. In this way, the strongest myth of all, the myth that pretends the Union is preserved, slowly spread South. So, North and South, it was impossible to discuss the issues of the war realistically, to discover in its wearisome marches and bitter engagements the distress and confusion of our commercial empire. It remained a thing fixed, apart, a tragic interlude, a skeleton in the closet hanging in a museum.

And it is this myth which Mr. Masters, in his “Lincoln, the Man,” so thoroughly destroys. His method of destruction is indirect, but it is indirection with a purpose. By showing the true character of the Northern war president, he automatically demolishes the omniscient, great-hearted, simple, democratic, Jeffersonian rail-splitter who from his earliest days swore to do away with slavery and who loved the Union above all things.

If Lincoln loved the Union, he was responsible, more than any man, for its destruction, for he consciously violated the constitution in calling out armies for the reduction of the cotton States. The war was not a war of slavery versus freedom; it was a war between those who preferred a federated nation to those who preferred a confederation of sovereign states. Slavery was the ink thrown into the pool to confuse the issue. Lincoin, who had always been a Ham-iltonian, saw that Hamilton’s principles finally triumphed. As the great body of people, particularly in the Northwest, believed in the Jeffersonian state, it was necessary to make the Lincoln myth in order to cover the growing centralization which would make it possible for the trusts and corporations to gobble up the substance and liberties of the people.

Mr. Masters has made this unusually clear, and his biography has the strength and order of a good lawyer’s brief. Its unity is unusual for a work of this kind, spreading to the minutest details. Indeed, at times he follows the central thesis too closely, more closely than one can believe nature ever did. But in the end the facts are believed and the interpretation accepted. One feels that no high court of opinion would deny them; only the jury that believes the myth could render a negative judgment.

The Lincoln that gradually appears from Mr. Masters’ pen is the antithesis of all that we have been taught to believe he was. He was secretive, cold, and humorous as the wilderness understood humor. Without any creative ability, he possessed a strong poetic sense which allowed him to take other men’s thoughts and improve them. This quality was one of the secrets of his power over audiences. His immediate family was not strong or gifted enough to grow out of its pioneering habits. Apparently young Lincoln was strongly affected by this. He was ashamed of his background and, years later, refused to be with his father on his death bed. This desire to live away from his family stirred an ambition to distinguish himself. He lacked, however, the physical and mental vigor which ambition requires, and the author makes it clear that his long years of poverty were due to this cause and not to a lack of opportunity,. From the beginnings out of this desire to rise in the world, he attached himself to the Whig Party, the moneyed political wing. He could not, therefore, have been a friend of the people. He lacked the character or the philosophical clarity to understand the connotation of the American theory of the Union between sovereign states. He was an opportunist in the purest sense, that the end justifies the means. This, added to his native gifts, made him the masterly politician he was, and the author makes much of his reliance on “Chitty on Pleading,” a book full of intellectual cunning and one which advises the defensive, thereby, placing the burden of proof on the opponent. Lincoln’s tactics with the Fort Sumter affair show how well he learned the rules. Indeed, the influence of this book can be traced through all his public life. “His mind worked better,” writes Mr. Masters, “when he was exposing what he considered a fallacy than when he was constructing an original thesis.”

There can never be any question as to his political acumen. He refused to commit himself definitely on any principle, but always left some loophole through which he could crawl. He did this so successfully that it was almost impossible for Douglas to convince the Black Republican audiences that Lincoln had refused to accept their platform while running for senator on it. A man who would like to advance himself in public life should know the tricks, but if he is a noble man or a great statesman, he also orders his life according to some underlying principle or philosophy of life. This Lincoln did not do. It is fascinating to follow the change in his speeches as he approached Washington and a declaration of war on the Southern country. If there was any, underlying impetus to his actions, it was only this desire to distinguish himself. From this it follows that his conception of the American Union was, since he was too lazy to study its beginnings, a geographical one, that is, one in which he and others like him could rise to power. But a Union is not geography. It is a political concept.

A people lives by myths, religious and social. And it is always a dangerous thing to tamper with them. But the Lincoln myth is definitely a bad myth, and Mr. Masters deserves great credit for shattering it, for it helps to sustain the industrial imperialism which was made possible by Lincoln’s successful prosecution of the war. “From 1865 to 1900,” says Mr. Masters, “there were fast and systematic policies of overthrowing the liberty of America, and the forms through which it could be expressed, for the benefit of money oligarchies and Hebraic-Puritanism. Taking him for what he really was, there is no irony in the rôle that Lincoln played in the revolution which Calhoun foresaw along political lines. Calhoun did not prognosticate, as no man could, the paralysis that was to come to the spiritual life of America as the result of the combined efforts of im-perialists and fanatics. It is only by considering Lincoln superficially, by mistakenly accepting him as the rail-splitter and the democrat, that any surprise can be felt that he played the part of the destroyer of the American system which had been created by men who tried to make a land all free out of the fresh conditions of a new world.”

There is one serious flaw in this biography—the author’s insistence that the belief in a Hebraic-Puritanism was responsible for Lincoln’s attitude as well as for the maniacal New Englanders who meddle in other people’s moral problems when their own grow difficult. One does not quite follow here. The question repeatedly rises, What is this Hebraic-Puritanism? At one time Mr. Masters makes a comparison with the Greeks. This is all very well, but the peculiar religion which grew the Greek culture did not grow the cultures of the western world. If Mr. Masters had referred to the decline of western culture and western religion, if he had made this more definite, the underlying theme of “Lincoln, the Man” might have been clearer. As it is, he only confuses the issue and weakens his case.

The “New Letters and Papers of Lincoin” by Mr. Angle is a compilation. It contains things of interest to historians, but many of Mr. Angle’s discoveries seem to carry no great value or usefulness. That one should feel that every word hat Lincoln wrote or spoke should be of value demonstrates he weight of the Lincoln myth. Mr. Seitz’s “Lincoln the Politician” takes and glories in the myth. He believes that he victory of the Black Republicans meant the preservation of the Union; and his thesis is that politicians, with or without principles, just politicians, sustain popular government. This naive viewpoint makes one wonder if Mr. Seitz really jelieves that there is popular government in America today.

A complete study of Lincoln as the politician would cerainly make an interesting book, but Mr. Seitz has not held to his thesis with any great effect. He shows Lincoln the politician only indirectly, making all the while ineffectual ifforts to show him as the wise, good man, omniscient and jompletely in control of every, situation. The cotton states vere in “rebellion,” were “traitors,” and Lincoln’s forbearance to act or to punish was due to his compassionate heart. Perhaps the fault with Mr. Seitz’s treatment is his uncertainty about the purpose of a politician; for after all a politician is a man and, being a man, he has some community to defend or some interest to busy himself about. If he had studied more thoroughly the character of Lincoln, he could dave strengthened his argument. He made nothing, for example, of Lincoln’s play for Kentucky and the Northwest as the crucial states which would finally decide the issue.

“Europe and the American Civil War” is a book containing two lengthy essays by Mr. Donaldson Jordan and Mr. Edward J. Pratt. They follow the fluctuation of public opinion through the press, governmental circles, and public gatherings and relate the secondary causes which kept Europe out of the affair on the other side of the Atlantic. Their material will be useful as documentary evidence, but their arguments are not always convincing. They say nothing, for example, about the failure of Jefferson Davis to make a definite offer to the British Government early in the war or of the effect of an increasing wool manufacture which greatly decreased the distress in England. They have attempted to portray the fluctuations of public opinion without bias; but this is a very difficult thing to do, for they must have, after all, a feeling about the outcome of the war; and it is hard to see how this feeling can be kept from showing itself. Facts, in themselves, are nothing, It is always their interpretation that gives them a meaning. It would seem best for the historian, in the beginning, to make clear his approach or else be very certain that he has made only a compilation. This book wavers between these two approaches and for this reason is less effective than it might otherwise have been.

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