U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s call for a national divorce has met widespread condemnation, but some on the Left find themselves agreeing to her proposed divorce “in the interest of the kids.” There’s no actual risk of a split today, unlike in the 19th century. But Greene’s antics, and the reaction to them, fit into a long tradition of anti-Lincoln voices of Right and Left, and are symptomatic of a very real danger—that the United States succumbs to a universal weakness of democratic forms of government, as increasingly polarized factions tear society apart. As the American nation navigates this challenge anew, Abraham Lincoln is a sober and somber guide.
Twenty years ago, Lincoln scholar Barry Schwartz asked why Lincoln was not as revered as he had once been. Nevertheless, he could still conclude that most Americans saw Lincoln, and the Founders, as “admirable but imperfect.” This is no longer the case. Vocal and growing groups at both ends of the political spectrum are maligning Lincoln, and his proponents must work harder to recover his legacy. But this defense necessarily means taking seriously the critics’ arguments against him.
Many southerners and southern sympathizers hated Lincoln, while abolitionists looked with horror at Lincoln’s willingness to compromise with the South. His goal was slow, firm progress toward the extinction of slavery; and to preserve the Union, he was willing to see slavery continue in the South for another generation or more. Lincoln came to the presidency with the pledge of union at all costs, but with the one hard line that there be no extension of slavery—that it be confined to the southern states that already had it. Even this was a non-starter for what would become the Confederacy, while for abolitionists it reflected an unacceptable moral weakness.
It wasn’t just fire-eating southerners who wanted secession—abolitionists also preferred to split up into two countries. William Lloyd Garrison, the most famous abolitionist of them all, had long called for a referendum among the free states for a peaceful dissolution of the Union. Lincoln and the Republicans thought disunion would be a disaster. Lincoln ally Hamilton Fish put it bluntly: “Doubtless there are men, both at the North and at the South, who contemplate, and some who even desire a dissolution of the Union. Our jails and Lunatic Asylums are of sufficient capacity to accommodate them.”
It’s difficult for Americans today to understand the existential nature of this debate. More than historical knowledge, it requires imagination. What if, after separating from Great Britain, all thirteen states had continued more or less independent, under a weak umbrella-like confederation (as existed before the Constitution)? Or, what if a couple of generations later someone like Lincoln hadn’t emerged, and the country had split up? Would a free North have been able to share a stable border with an enslaving aristocracy to its south? Our subsequent history, our world today, would be very different. Only think of the positive and indeed crucial role of the United States in both world wars in the 20th century. Would the United States have been able to rise to such a role, if it hadn’t been melded together by the Constitution, and if the Union had not survived the trial by fire of the Civil War? If the United States had split up into two nations, would they have been able to avoid squabbling and fighting with each other, engaging in an arms race, backing opposite sides in European conflicts, and weakening each other for some opportunistic outside power to exploit? For all its problems, the Union has been utterly necessary.
Many disagree, especially anti-Lincoln voices of Right and Left. The most extreme anti-Lincoln right-wing view sees Lincoln as a psychopathic dictator and the Ku Klux Klan as harmless and patriotic citizens. But even in a more diluted form, some on the Right who would never speak well of the Klan are still very anti-Lincoln. Former U.S. Representative Ron Paul, for example, has called the Civil War senseless, saying that Lincoln could have ended slavery without war. Lincoln’s real aim, according to Paul, was to “get rid of the original intent of the republic”—in other words, he thinks Lincoln didn’t care for the Founders or the Constitution.
Meanwhile, for those on the anti-Lincoln Left, Lincoln was too soft and conciliatory to southern interests. Historian Lerone Bennett Jr., for example, spent 600 pages demonstrating that Lincoln was first and always a white supremacist. Even more influential is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which teaches that the Constitution was a sordid betrayal of the democratic ideals of the Revolution (echoing Garrison’s characterization of the Constitution as “a covenant with death, and with Hell”). For Zinn, Lincoln’s Republican party and the Democratic party of Jefferson Davis were morally equivalent, as were the United States and Nazi Germany during World War II.
These anti-Lincoln positions contradict each other, but they have traction. Social media has amplified the white supremacy narrative, and Zinn’s book has become, in California and elsewhere, a textbook in many high school history classes and in a range of university courses. In the most progressive pockets of the United States, the American flag is seen as a Republican or even a fascist symbol. It’s up to Lincoln’s advocates, both progressive and conservative, to make a stronger case in his defense by facing such criticisms head-on.
First, the charge that Lincoln was a southern-sympathizing white supremacist: opponents of Lincoln on the Left often cite his support of colonization of freed slaves to Africa, and the compromised nature of the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed only the slaves in states and territories then in rebellion. Over and over as a teacher, in public schools and in universities, I’ve seen students, when first confronted with these charges, shoot towards the anti-Lincoln Left. This is understandable—we like our heroes to have the moral high ground. But it was precisely this moral high ground that Lincoln couldn’t afford.
He feared that if he had freed all slaves when the war started, the border states would join the Confederacy, and the war would be lost. He was performing a delicate balancing act in dogged pursuit of an anti-slavery policy. For the abolitionists, this policy was far too little—but for the most committed Southerners, it was too extreme. Abolitionists had the moral high ground, but they cared little or nothing for the Union. Lincoln’s course preserved the Union.
Lincoln’s advocates must also take seriously the charge that he was acting against the Constitution. Southerners and southern-sympathizers charged that Lincoln had made himself a dictator when he suspended habeas corpus, an ancient principle of English law that protects against arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Lincoln justified it as a wartime necessity, citing the Constitution, which allows for suspension in case of rebellion.
This curbing of civil liberties was a drastic action, and many Lincoln apologists don’t face it directly. For example, George Fletcher of Columbia Law School argues that Lincoln in his heart rejected the Constitution and rule of law, but couldn't say so openly because it would have undermined his legitimacy. Without going that far, Mark Neely’s Pulitzer-winning The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties agrees that Lincoln was concerned less about the Constitution than about the Declaration of Independence, especially the line “all men are created equal.” A case of “strange bedfellows” ensues, where pro-Lincoln scholars and anti-Lincoln conservatives or libertarians agree that Lincoln to a greater or lesser extent didn’t value the Constitution.
Nevertheless, Lincoln was a hard-headed lawyer who had taken an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Constitution. He knew the wrong of slavery, and he also knew that the unintended consequences of good intentions could end up making the wrong worse. In the wake of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, while William Lloyd Garrison was burning a copy of the Constitution, Lincoln pointed out “how much the great body of Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.” The Emancipation Proclamation meticulously listed the southern counties, parishes, and cities which were not then in rebellion, and whose slaves were therefore not freed—it was the states and territories then in rebellion which had forfeited their constitutional protections, and whose slaves were therefore freed. Lincoln later led the effort to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which finally abolished slavery throughout the United States. It was a halting path, but his commitment to working within the framework of the Constitution cannot be in doubt.
The challenges facing the United States today are different from those facing Lincoln and his generation. Despite Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rhetoric, we do not risk splitting apart along the Mason-Dixon line, or even into coastal and heartland countries. Before the Civil War, we were “these United States”, “these States United”, and it was counted as a plural. After the Civil War, we became “the United States,” a singular entity. Americans don’t risk becoming two nations anymore—the risk lies in succumbing to the universal weakness of democratic forms of government, as polarized factions corrode and erode society, and a dictatorship emerges.
The historical relationship between democracy and dictatorship offers valuable lessons. After the French Revolution of 1789, it took a decade before Napoleon seized power in a coup. In Russia in 1917 the process took only seven months to progress from tsar to liberal democracy to dictatorship. In Germany at the end of World War I, fifteen years elapsed from the fall of the Kaiser through the Weimar Republic to Hitler’s rule.
These are relatively recent examples. In 1787 when the American Constitution was written, the French Revolution hadn’t yet happened. The American Founders carefully studied older examples of factionalism tearing ancient societies apart—and Americans have reaped the fruits of their labors, steering clear of the cycle from monarchy to democracy to dictatorship that has plagued other parts of the world. Though far from perfect, the Constitution is robust and adaptable, and not coincidentally, remains the oldest written constitution in the world.
Yet today, Americans are so divided that many wonder if the United States will soon follow the same historical cycle followed by the French, the Russians, the Germans, and by so many others. Rival political tribes accuse each other of being fascist. Both sides see themselves as the stalwart defenders of democracy, and indeed sometimes of goodness itself, against a malevolent or deluded foe. The truth is less tribal and more disturbing.
A wrenching but necessary synthesis will help to recover the common good, and it begins in schools. There is a vast and messy middle ground between the rival anti-Lincoln extremes, which often become mired in ethical and historical illiteracy. Making the pro-Lincoln case means colonizing this messy middle ground, reacquiring a respect for the Constitution, and taking the flag back from would-be secessionists and insurrectionists. For all its flaws, Americans have something special with their country, and must work to preserve it.
How can we better balance the zeal for change and justice with an equally essential sobriety and awareness of the law of unintended consequences? Some questions can only be answered, if at all, one human mind and heart at a time. But some questions must be answered collectively. With Lincoln’s example, we have the opportunity to renew this great and flawed republic—and we’ll do it together or not at all.
Padraic Rohan is assistant professor of history at Quincy University in Illinois. He has worked as a public school teacher, a non-profit director, and a foreign correspondent in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
Image: A colorized photograph of Abraham Lincoln. (Wikimedia: IceKoldKube)
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