Magazine March 11, 2019, Issue

Lightweight Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln in 1865 (Alexander Gardner via Library of Congress)
Becoming Lincoln, by William W. Freehling (University of Virginia Press, 384 pp., $29.95)

‘Lincoln’s monumental life was all about becoming,” announces William W. Freehling in his new biography of the 16th president. By becoming, Freehling means that there was never a single, steadfast Lincoln, always carrying around in his back pocket the principles and plans that eventually became the Emancipation Proclamation. Freehling’s Lincoln is a changeling, looking all through his life for the wave (whether political, economic, or professional) that would finally bring him to a successful shore.

This way of interpreting Abraham Lincoln has a strong kinship with the Progressive biographers of Lincoln, from Albert Beveridge to Eric Foner, who have expressed varying degrees of skepticism about the worth of his ideas. Still, Freehling has to be considered seriously, if only because of his marvelous record as a historian of the antebellum South. His two volumes on the coming of secession, The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 17761854 (1997) and The Road to Dis­union: Secessionists Triumphant, 18541861 (2007), forced us to understand the fatal dissensions that existed within the South’s geography — the Border South (Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri), the Upper South (Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas), and the Lower South (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas) — and how those dissensions fed the Lower South’s fearful frenzy for secession, lest the Border and the Upper drift (as they were indeed drifting) away from slavery.

In Becoming Lincoln, Freehling introduces us to a similarly divided North. The Upper North (from Minne­sota through New York to Maine) constituted the tier of states most interested in slavery’s abolition, but it was re­strained by a Border North (from Iowa to New Jersey) of free states, which were prepared to defend freedom but not to mount a campaign to impose it on the South. Freehling’s Lincoln is a man of both Borders — born in Kentucky and married to a Kentuckian, raised in southern Indiana, and living in central Illinois. He is precisely the kind of politician the pro-slavery fire-eaters of the Lower South dreaded — a man of the Border who was more interested in the Union than in slavery, and who could persuade the Border (and perhaps the Upper South) to stop up their ears to the secession siren’s song.

This is why Becoming Lincoln opens with scarcely a glance at slavery, but instead concentrates on developing the image of a young Lincoln ambitious to become a paladin of Union through a career in law and politics in the 1830s. Freehling finds that Lincoln has nothing of significance to say on slavery during these years. When Lincoln finally succeeds in getting elected to Congress in 1846, his debut speech is about infrastructure; only after being bumped from consideration for reelection does Lincoln, as a lame duck, make halfhearted motions toward a strictly limited curtailment of slavery in the District of Columbia.

This picture does not sit very easily beside the impression Lincoln made on his contemporaries. Even in the 1840s, the New-York Tribune described Lincoln as “a Strong but Judicious Enemy to Slavery.” The disconnect illuminates the great underlying weakness of Freehling’s book, that it is based almost entirely on his reading in secondary sources. In the McLean County tax case, Freehling portrays Lin­coln as the conniving advocate of centralized authority — in this instance, the State of Illi­nois and the Illinois Central Railroad — against the local economic interests of McLean County, apparently unaware that Lin­coln first offered his services to Mc­Lean County and was ignored. Freehling follows popular biographers (from Carl Sandburg to Sally Jenkins) in having Lincoln open the Cooper Union speech with “Mister Cheerman,” in a reedy redneck twang. Actually, Lincoln began with “Mr. Presi­dent and Fellow-Citizens of New York,” but getting that right would have required looking up the New-York Tribune’s transcript of the speech (as published the day following, February 28, 1860).

Lincoln’s unheroic image ends for Freehling with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Lincoln’s “first sustained public exploration of slavery” in the Peoria Speech of October 16, 1854. Even then, Lincoln avoids condemning the immorality of slaveowning and offers no practical project for “barring slavery from all territories and no program for freeing slave states.” Nor does Freehling see much of substance in the Lincoln–Douglas debates of 1858, dismissing them as “barren of effective ways” either “to salvage the republic” or “to end slavery.” Lincoln’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the presidency in 1860 is, for Freehling, a triumph of shrewd handlers and a smiling unwillingness to talk (as Lincoln had on other occasions) about the “ultimate extinction” of slavery.

Even as he takes the oath of office, Lincoln makes a point to keep the moral offense of slavery out of his condemnation of southern secession. When civil war begins, its first shot is fired not over slavery but over which federal fort on southern soil — Sumter or Pickens — seemed to Lincoln to be the surest to hold out and the likeliest to rally Unionist sympathy in the Border. And yet Freehling, as he generously concedes, cannot see how emancipation “could have occurred as swiftly without [a] saved Union — or how a nation without a moral leader as crafty as the bluffer could have as well endured its most frightful test.”

There, quixotically, the book ends, save for an epilogue that hastily touches on the Gettysburg Address, the Emanci­pation Proclamation, and the Second Inaugural. Lincoln has become something by the last page, but exactly what (apart from president) is unclear. What Lincoln would have become had he survived to guide Re­construction is consigned by Freehling to a simple shrug of the shoulders.

Freehling’s Lincoln is a man almost entirely devoid of intellectual ballast. This is not the Lincoln who described himself as having “always hated slavery.” Nor is there any sense in Becoming Lincoln of Lincoln’s long kinship to 19th-century free-market economics (from John Stuart Mill to Francis Wayland to Henry Carey). When, during the debates with Douglas, Lincoln speaks of an equality that blacks and whites should have in eating the bread they have earned by the sweat of their own brows, Freehling cannot believe that an economic equality — one concerned with earning bread — deserves to be taken seriously. This, Freehling snorts, only shows that Lincoln “never came to terms with the free labor system’s own drawbacks.”

That dismissal becomes the springboard for Freehling’s deeper mockery of Lincoln as a “self-made man.” Lincoln believed wholeheartedly that the reason America stands “at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world” is that “every man can make himself.” Freehling is incredulous: No one succeeds on their own (an echo of Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that”), least of all Lincoln. But “the self-made man” was never about some caricaturable loner who lived like an island and boiled soup from stones. It was about the individuals who inherit no fortune or famous name, but who nevertheless raise their own name to the level enjoyed by the great. To be “self-made” was to practice what the Victorians called “the pursuit of knowledge under difficulties,” not to star in a solo performance. Lincoln never deplored the use of help, including the help of government — but he insisted that government promote self-determination, not hinder it.

Freehling’s Lincoln also embodies one important departure from the Pro­gressives. From Hegel onwards, Left historiography has invariably espoused some variety of historical determinism, and the Progressives were no exception. Not for Freehling. Both volumes of The Road to Dis­union are shot through with examples of the indeterminate. And so it is with Be­coming Lincoln, where Freehling is convinced that “coincidences as well as deep causes . . . drive human epics.” The uncle who saved Lincoln’s father from kidnapping by a Shawnee with a well-aimed bullet, the mill-horse whose kick nearly killed the ten-year-old Lincoln — are they “chance or destiny?” Freehling asks. All of this “does raise questions about the fates.”

The irony of Freehling’s quarrel with Progressive determinism is that Lincoln was himself a determinist, driven all his life by a naturalized Calvinism that discerned in human events “a divinity that shapes our ends / Rough-hew them how we will.” It was that sense of overarching destiny that governed Lincoln’s conscious life and that gave it a unity Freehling misses. “I claim not to have controlled events,” Lincoln said in 1864, “but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” Only that sense of walking with destiny could have steeled him to the great deed of emancipation. A contingent man, made by the flips and flops of chance or ambition, would never have had the nerve.

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Allen C. Guelzo is the senior research scholar in the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University and the director of the James Madison Program’s Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship.

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