Politics & Policy

Multicultural Abe

The folly of Congress's Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

In 1859 Abraham Lincoln expressed the fear that the “principles of free government” in the United States would one day be supplanted by those of “classification, caste, and legitimacy.”

Lincoln fought a civil war to stave off that threat; if he were alive today, he’d have to fight his own Bicentennial Commission, too.

The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, created by Congress to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, has chosen to honor the sixteenth president’s memory by invoking the very principles of classification and caste that he opposed in life. The Commission is striving to fragment Lincoln’s legacy by pandering to multicultural identity politics that repudiate Lincoln’s own faith in a common national citizenship, rooted in the belief that all men are created equal.

According to the commission, its “ongoing series of explorations” of the 16th president’s life will illuminate “various perspectives on Lincoln.” In fact, the program elevates the multicultural ideal of racial and ethnic citizenship over Lincoln’s own ideal of American citizenship.

This past February, on the day before Lincoln’s birthday, the commission sponsored an event at the Chicago History Museum, A Roundtable on African American Perspectives of Abraham Lincoln,” to discuss “whether Lincoln should be credited with freeing the slaves.”

In September the commission sponsored a panel discussion in Washington, “New Thinking on Lincoln’s Legacy: Hispanic Perspectives.” The commission’s press release states: “Abraham Lincoln was a symbol of opportunity and advancement for early 20th century Hispanic laborers paid with pennies bearing Lincoln’s likeness.” “In Mexico, his support for President Benito Juárez made him a hero. But does Lincoln’s legacy resonate with the 38 million Hispanics in the United States today?”

More such events are likely to follow in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in February 2009. In an effort to assist the commission in its work, I came up with a number of potential topics:

January 2008: Lincoln in the Eyes of Native Hawaiians. Supporters of Senator Daniel Akaka (D., Ha.) will explain why Lincoln, though he opposed state-sanctioned classification by race or ethnicity, would have made an exception in order to classify ethnic Hawaiians as a group entitled to special privileges and immunities. Life in a tropical paradise is harder than it looks, and Lincoln would no doubt have agreed that native Hawaiians deserve preferential treatment from the federal government.

March 2008: The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual Lincoln. Does Lincoln’s legacy resonate with the gay community in the United States today? This town hall meeting will focus on Lincoln’s failure to stand up for homosexual rights and will analyze instances of homophobia in his administration. One of Lincoln’s political allies, James Harlan, dismissed a gay civil servant, Walt Whitman, from his clerkship in the Department of the Interior. The scholarship of C. A. Tripp, author of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, will be featured, as well as that of Ernest Hemingway, who in The Sun Also Rises (chapter 12) said that “Abraham Lincoln was a faggot. He was in love with General Grant. So was Jefferson Davis.” The town hall meeting will consider whether Lincoln’s gay lovers should have “outed” the President after Gettysburg, by which time the South was pretty much licked anyway.

April 2008: Lincoln and Reparations for Native Americans. Lincoln sometimes used metaphors drawn from card games. “I will play the card,” he said before he issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, “and may win the trick.” A panel discussion will focus on Lincoln’s views on casinos.

June 2008: Lincoln and Shakespeare: The Transgendered Perspective. Macbeth was Lincoln’s favorite play. “I think nothing equals Macbeth,” he said. This colloquium will bring together both eminent scholars and recipients of sex-changes to discuss interconnections between Shakespeare’s transgendered characters and gender confusion in the Lincoln household. Lady Macbeth, who said she would dash “the brains out” of “the babe that milks me” in order to get her way, clearly wore the pants at Glamis. The Lincolns affected a more conventional marriage than the Macbeths; in the White House Mary was in charge of interior decoration, while Abe prosecuted the war. The colloquium will consider whether this image of domestic normalcy was in fact a ruse, and will pay special attention to the estimate of Elliott Herndon, brother of Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, who said that “physiologically and phrenologically [Lincoln] was a sort of monstrosity…a cross between Venus and Hercules.”

November 2008: Lincoln as a Muslim. When Lincoln stood up on the parapet of Fort Stevens in 1864, the young Oliver Wendell Holmes thought he was taking a suicidal risk. “Get down, you fool!” Holmes later recalled saying. A panel discussion will consider the death-wish Lincoln displayed at Fort Stevens in the light of the experiences of freedom-fighters in Palestine who have opted to use suicide bombs in their struggle against the Zionist Oppressor.

January 2009: The Multicultural Gettysburg Address. Numerous scholars have noted regrettable defects in the Gettysburg Address, and have expressed reservations about its use as an educational text in schools. The Address was, of course, beautifully written, in its way; but by our standards its language is, well, a bit highfalutin. “Four score and seven years ago . . .” — like, what gives, Abe? And the whole thing is, frankly, way too Biblical.

Children today come from a diverse array of linguistic and cultural backgrounds. Talk about the prison-house of language: There is no reason why our kids should be forced to study a text that is written in the antiquated dialect known as literary English. Such a text inevitably frustrates the diversity our schools exist to promote, and is only too likely to intimidate kids in Spanish-only schools as well as those studying Ebonics.

Nor should we overlook the fact that the Address’s religious language (cf. Lincoln’s contention “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom”) is in violation of contemporary Supreme Court jurisprudence concerning the separation of church and state. The Court has not yet addressed the question specifically; but given the Address’s unabashed invocation of the Deity, there are grave doubts as to whether it is constitutional to read or post the oration in schools, government buildings, and military installations.

Finally, the Address’s thesis that “all men are created equal” is incompatible with modern affirmative action programs, which necessitate special treatment for certain classes and categories of citizens. Senator Akaka of Hawaii will be invited to gloss this point.

The “Multicultural Gettysburg Address ” event will culminate in the unveiling of a revised and expurgated version of Lincoln’s oration suitable for use in schools, colleges, and government buildings.

— Michael Knox Beran is a contributing editor of City Journal. His book, Forge of Empires 1861-1871: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, has just been published by Free Press.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran is a lawyer and writer. His book WASPs: The Splendors and Miseries of an American Aristocracy is to be published in August.


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