The American Left has always had difficulty reconciling itself to Abraham Lincoln. As the Great Emancipator, Lincoln ought to be a winning candidate for the Great Progressive as well. But Lincoln was a tardy and cautious Emancipator. And the goal he looked for beyond emancipation was a nation of entrepreneurial strivers, operating under a government which kept itself strictly to the rule of doing only “for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate, and individual capacities.”
It comes as a mildly pleasant surprise, then, to read the estimate of Lincoln written by one of the history paladins of the Left, Eric Foner, in the January 23rd issue the The Nation. Foner, despite his membership in one of the first families of American Marxism, has always been a scrupulously fair historian of Lincoln and the Republicans of the Civil War era, and his description of Lincoln in The Nation gives full credit to the “eloquence and power” with which Lincoln condemned slavery.
Still, Foner is acutely aware that this same Lincoln “did not share the abolitionist conviction that the moral issue of slavery overrode all others,” nor did he view “the struggles against slavery and racism as intimately connected.” Much as Lincoln “claimed for blacks the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence … he insisted these did not necessarily carry with them civil, political, or social equality.”
The unpleasant aroma of these ideas has been enough to sour many a progressive on Lincoln, emancipation notwithstanding. But not Foner, who very much wants him to be “our Lincoln.” To do that, Foner must resort to a well-worn progressive trope — growth. “The Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth” — by which Foner means, Lincoln’s ability to shed his embarrassing conservative notions for an identity as “an enlightened leader” who can “produce progressive social change.”
The difficulty is that Lincoln himself never confessed any awareness of “growth,” nor did those who knew him best. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Lincoln said in 1864, “ I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Far from needing growth, Lincoln (according to Illinois congressman Isaac Arnold) “had it in his mind for a long time to war upon slavery until its destruction was effected.” Lincoln did not end slavery by repentantly abandoning his conservative ideas; he ended it by tenaciously applying those ideas according to a blueprint of classical political prudence.
I suppose it is better that Foner wants to re-upholster Lincoln as “our Lincoln” rather than trashing Lincoln completely, as so many other Left historians do. But even Foner must recognize that this is an uphill task. In a collection of essays published last month under the title, Our Lincoln, Foner recruits a contingent of fellow Left historians to endorse the “growth” Lincoln. But only one of them is actually a Lincoln specialist, and the others show varying degrees of reluctance to embrace the growth thesis. (Bona fide Lincolnites — think of Michael Burlingame, Lucas Morel, Thomas Krannawitter, the great Harry Jaffa — were conspicuous by their exclusion). Foner’s Lincoln is not really Lincoln at all, but a wax-work progressive. The real Lincoln is the conservative, after all — our Lincoln, and not theirs.
— Allen Carl Guelzo, Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College, is a contributor to the Manhattan Institute’s MindingTheCampus.com.