The Zealot and the Emancipator:
John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom
by h. w. brands
doubleday, 464 pages, $30
The Problem with Lincoln
by thomas j. dilorenzo
regnery history, 240 pages, $30
Summoned to Glory:
The Audacious Life of Abraham Lincoln
by richard striner
rowman & littlefield,
560 pages, $35
Abraham Lincoln loved to tell stories. But many of them, as one political acquaintance tactfully admitted, “would not do exactly for the drawing room.” Lincoln had been raised in what he once called “the back side of this world,” and he had learned many a tale of how backsides worked. One of his favorites, according to his law partner of twenty-six years, William Henry Herndon, was about a “man of audacity, quick witted, self-possessed, and equal to all occasions.” On one of those “occasions,” Mr. Audacity was called upon to carve the turkey at a grand dinner. “But he expended too much force & let [out] a fart—a loud fart so that all the people heard it distinctly,” and “of course it shocked all terribly.” Unfazed, “the audacious man” rolled up his sleeves, once more picked up the carving knife, and without “cracking a smile,” said “loudly and distinctly—‘Now, by God I’ll see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.’” Everyone relaxed into gales of laughter and cheered him for his boldness.
Herndon thought this was “a good story to show the power of audacity.” It may also be a useful point of argument, since no question about Lincoln has had more potency in our own times than the casting of Lincoln himself as the “man of audacity” in freeing the slaves or (more grimly) running roughshod over the Constitution’s guarantees. Not that Lincoln ever imagined himself as particularly audacious. He told the journalist Noah Brooks that he thought himself “a great coward physically, and was sure that he should make a poor soldier, for, unless there was something in the excitement of a battle, he was sure that he would drop his gun and run at the first symptom of danger.” Yet Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s most successful general in the Civil War, recalled that Lincoln always had “a firm will and a clear policy,” and Lincoln’s own White House secretary, John Milton Hay, marveled that “the old man sits here and wields, like a backwoods Jupiter, the bolts of war and the machinery of government with a hand especially steady and equally firm.” Perhaps more ominously, Hay added, “He is devilish near an autocrat in this Administration.”
For a generation after Lincoln’s death in 1865, many of his remembrancers wanted to enlist him on the side of audacity, especially concerning emancipation, and construed that audacity as a good thing. But Gideon Welles, who served as Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy, was less certain. Lincoln had turned to emancipation, Welles wrote, only because “the war and war necessities had modified his views and overcome his primary, undisguised reluctance to adopt a measure for which he had no express constitutional or legal authority.” And among turn-of-the-century Progressives like James Garfield Randall, Lincoln’s first academic biographer, Lincoln seemed far less audacious than he should have been, and certainly less audacious than Randall’s model, Woodrow Wilson. “The limitations of governmental power were carefully heeded” by Lincoln, Randall sniped, “so carefully that at times it did seem that war was actually being conducted in vinculus” [“under duress”].
Audacity finally disappeared completely from the Lincoln lexicon in 1968, when Lerone Bennett, executive editor of Ebony, published a sensational diatribe, “Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?”—a question Bennett answered resoundingly in the affirmative, both then and in 2000, in his Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln’s White Dream. “Lincoln did not emancipate the slaves, greatly or otherwise,” Bennett declared, and the Emancipation Proclamation “was not a real emancipation at all, and did not liberate African-American slaves.” Images of audacity were replaced by pictures of foot-dragging and reluctance, marred by racism. “Abraham Lincoln was not looking at matters from the black perspective,” complained Vincent Harding in his classic history of black freedom struggles, There Is a River. “His perspective was white, and his supreme goal was to preserve the white-defined Union.”
So, was Lincoln a “man of audacity”? It may be the sign of a new turn in the Lincoln literature that three of the most recent additions circle around the question of Lincoln’s audacity and whether it should be a source of hope or fear.
In Richard Striner’s Summoned to Glory: The Audacious Life of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln recovers all the audacity that earlier biographers had imputed to him. Striner’s very title is a riposte to Lerone Bennett, and Striner’s Lincoln, although a man of “overwhelming decency,” never hesitates to use “power to take strong stands and carry the day in a crisis whose severity and magnitude surpassed any other in American history.” It is, Striner declares, “one of the most wrong-headed stereotypes of all” to conceive of Lincoln as “a slow-moving moderate who somehow achieved true greatness.”
Well, maybe. Striner no sooner asserts Lincoln’s audacity than he begins to qualify it. Lincoln may not have been a reluctant emancipator, yet “when the situation demanded it, he could be cautious,” and he possessed a “delicate” sense that allowed him to “avoid miscalculation.” Lincoln’s original plans for emancipation were “ambitious,” but they were “grounded in the gradualist school of thought.” Even as president, he pulled back from supporting Missouri’s anti-slavery radicals because they were too “confrontational,” and he “said that his preference for Missouri was gradual emancipation.”
Striner proposes to reconcile the cautious with the audacious by asking us to understand that Lincoln’s caution was only a stratagem, that he was “crafty,” “tricky,” “misleading,” and “slippery” in dealing with the opposition in order to disarm it. He goes so far as to announce that Lincoln “was no saint, and . . . used the methods of deception many times” in seeming to be cautious—so much so “that one is tempted to laugh out loud sometimes in appreciation of his cleverness.” Striner does not seem to anticipate that, unlike the Man of Audacity’s dinner guests, not everyone is likely to be amused by deceit in politicians, nor does “a tricky practitioner of the law” whose proclamations were “a masterpiece of cunning” strike everyone as entirely admirable. But this seems to be the formula by which Striner feels that the lead of Lincoln’s caution can be alchemically transmuted into the political gold of audacity.
In almost every other respect, Striner’s account of Lincoln’s life is a very conventional march from birth to death to evaluation, with more borrowings from Michael Burlingame’s magisterial Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008) than are probably helpful. It is odd, however, that a book about audacity should itself be so unwilling to evince audacity in its own judgments. Conflicts in Lincoln’s life are often allowed to dangle unresolved. The Matson slave case (a perplexing lawsuit in which Lincoln defended a Kentucky slaveholder who attempted to recover an escaped slave family) is treated with unanswered questions (“Why did he take the case at all? Perhaps he believed that he had to uphold professional standards?”). Lincoln’s methods of influencing members of Congress swivel in the breeze of Striner’s uncertainty (“We will never know the extent of these machinations”), and when he is unsure about Lincoln’s offers of reconciliation at the Hampton Roads Conference in 1865, Striner offers a fumbling allusion to “many Civil War scholars” who have “doubted the likelihood that Lincoln would have said such a thing.” The most annoying instance involves the Lincoln marriage, about which Striner alternates between vaguely suggesting that Mary Todd seduced her future husband and tamely asserting that “For years, controversies have raged in regard to the relationship between Abraham and Mary Lincoln.” Biographies about audacity do not help their cause by shrugging their shoulders in perplexity.
Nor is our confidence in Summoned to Glory boosted by its stumbling repeatedly over matters of simple fact. Lincoln warned in the House Divided speech that the people of Missouri, not Mississippi, were daydreaming about slavery; there is no textual evidence that Lincoln began his Cooper Institute speech with the twangy “Mister Cheerman”; Joseph Holt, not Winfield Scott, informed Lincoln of the desperate straits of Fort Sumter; Robert E. Lee was the commanding officer of the First Cavalry, not the Second; John Merryman’s “case” was never heard “in court,” nor did Merryman ever appear before Chief Justice Roger Taney; the famous photograph of Lincoln and his son Tad shows them looking at, not “a story book,” but a carte-de-visite album. By the end, it is Striner who seems to have the problem with audacity, not Lincoln.
Still, there is one moment in Summoned to Glory where Striner presents us with an unqualifiedly audacious president. That moment concerns military strategy, for Striner’s Lincoln is a “natural strategic thinker” and an “ideal Commander-in-Chief” who advocated Carl von Clausewitz’s doctrine of “total war” even before Clausewitz was translated into English. But it does nothing to restore credibility for either Striner or Lincoln’s audacity to remember that Clausewitz did not invent the notion of “total war” (the phrase was probably first coined by Léon Daudet in 1918). And it has to be said that, whatever his other gifts, military strategy was not Lincoln’s long suit. He had never served in any conflict more involved than the Black Hawk War in 1832, nor as any more than a militia captain, and most of what he knew about warfare was skimmed from books he borrowed as president from the Library of Congress.
As most strategic treatises do, those books taught Lincoln how the previous wars were won. But warfare in 1861 was an affair very different from previous American wars, largely due to the railroads, the telegraph, and armies grown so large that they could not survive without massive logistical supports. It was cities, where the logistics, communications, and railroads came together, that made the armies of the Civil War possible. Lincoln, however, embraced the old Napoleonic ideas of swift-moving armies with short logistical tails, launching headfirst overland attacks as the only legitimate means of conducting campaigns, and always insisting that defeating Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was the principal task of his generals, and not the capture of Lee’s capital, Richmond. It was not until a general whom he trusted politically—Ulysses Grant—showed him the bankruptcy of the strategic ground game that Lincoln pulled back, allowed Grant to lock Richmond in a siege, and brought the war to an end. Once Richmond had fallen, Lee’s army lasted exactly one week in the open country.
In this case, Lincoln was indeed audacious. He was also wrong. But we would not know that from Striner’s account. And ironically, Lincoln’s story about “the man of audacity” nowhere makes an appearance in Summoned to Glory.
One person who is likely to rejoice in the reading of Summoned to Glory will be Thomas DiLorenzo, although not for reasons which would gladden Striner’s brow. DiLorenzo is an economist and an ardent libertarian of the Ludwig von Mises school, and it is only stating things fairly to say that he is deeply suspicious of government and considers that government policy interventions in his lifetime have accomplished little other than “destroying the work ethic, the family, and the criminal justice system.” This is a stimulating and worthwhile point of discussion. What is more dubious has been DiLorenzo’s insistence, since the publication of his The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (2003) and Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know about Dishonest Abe (2006), that Abraham Lincoln is the mastermind culprit behind the nanny-state government DiLorenzo so energetically deplores.
DiLorenzo’s newest opus, The Problem with Lincoln, is less a matter of new historical discoveries than a pounding of the nail he has hammered in his earlier books still further through the board. But I suspect that DiLorenzo would be only too delighted to hail Striner’s version of Lincolnian audacity as indicative of the problem DiLorenzo poses. For DiLorenzo’s Lincoln is indeed audacious—and it’s all bad. Cleverness and deceit are Lincoln’s stock-in-trade, but not for the good of those on the receiving end, starting with African Americans, to whom he promises emancipation with one hand while personally endorsing white racism and planning the colonization of freed slaves out of the United States with the other. DiLorenzo’s Lincoln is fully as tricky on politics as on race. The founders, argues DiLorenzo, smiled on the idea of a union of states which could freely secede, but Lincoln subscribed to the idea of a “princely state,” an idea that “came to dominate American politics in the nineteenth century.”
On economics, Lincoln was even more cunning. He made war on the South not because of the illegality of secession or the abomination of slavery, but to ensure “tax collection . . . on imports,” a “disproportionate amount” of which occurred “at Southern ports such as Charleston, South Carolina, the home of Fort Sumter.” DiLorenzo would nod in vigorous agreement with Striner’s belief that Lincoln waged a “total war,” but he would (unlike Striner) intend no compliment to Lincoln’s strategic sagacity, since Lincoln’s “total war” is carried out on a scale reminiscent of the Holodomor. The only thing that saves this Lincoln—this audaciously deceitful Lincoln, we should say—from exposure as a Caesar-wannabe is a Republican propaganda machine that recruits scholars to repeat old excuses and vie with each other in inventing “new ones.”
The Problem with Lincoln is opportunistic in its attacks. At one moment, DiLorenzo beats Lincoln with a conservative stick. (He suspended the writ of habeas corpus and imprisoned dissidents.) At another, he wields a leftist stick. (The slaves freed themselves; Lincoln represented “the Northern banking-newspapers-
railroad-manufacturing elite.”) His grasp of constitutional issues is uncertain. (It is not true that “habeas corpus can be suspended only by an act of the legislature,” since the Constitution’s description of the writ and its suspension, in Article 1, section 9, does not specify who is to do the suspending.) Surprisingly, even DiLorenzo’s economic arguments are suspect. On the eve of the Civil War, import tariffs were indeed the largest source of federal revenue, but the single largest category of tariff-protected imports was Southern sugar (12 percent of all protected goods).
Occasionally, DiLorenzo’s assertions are simply risible. Because the words United States are “always in the plural in all of the founding documents,” DiLorenzo concludes that the use of a collective plural noun is evidence that the federal Union was a cluster of sovereignties rather than a single state. But grammar is not a particularly good tool to use in proving political points. Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war, once complained that “the administration not only have, as yet, no line of policy but also believe it never can have any”—thus using administration as a collective plural and demonstrating, not political theory, but the vagaries of nineteenth-century English usage. (It also pretty pointedly suggests that Lincoln’s administration was something less than a centralized despotism.) DiLorenzo likewise imagines that Lincoln had “close ties to the most famous socialist in world history,” Karl Marx. But Marx and Lincoln never corresponded; and although Marx wrote occasional European news bulletins as a stringer for the New-York Tribune in the 1850s, there is no way to demonstrate that Lincoln ever read them. In fact, Lincoln could hardly have had “a great deal in common” with Marx if Lincoln was, as DiLorenzo insists, the capitalist tool of that unspeakable “Northern banking-newspapers-railroad-manufacturing elite.”
DiLorenzo’s Lincoln is a monument to audacity, but of the most pernicious kind. Whether his Lincoln bears any resemblance to the Abraham Lincoln who walked the earth from 1809 to 1865 is another matter.
If there was anyone in the 1850s who deserved the adjective audacious, it was John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to foment a slave uprising by raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in October 1859. That audacity has often turned Brown’s biographers into melting sympathizers who excuse Brown’s murderous binges as accidents on the way to a good cause. But H. W. Brands, who has made an enviable career of biographizing American characters as diverse as Ronald Reagan and Aaron Burr, is not so sure about Brown’s virtues, and he throws them into less-glamorous light by yoking Brown and Lincoln together in a dual biography, The Zealot and the Emancipator: John Brown, Abraham Lincoln, and the Struggle for American Freedom.
Brown is by far the larger character in The Zealot and the Emancipator, but in almost every other respect, Brown stares back from Brands’s pages as (in the words of New York journalist William Phillips) “an enigma, a strange compound of enthusiasm and cold methodic stolidity.” Or he is perhaps worse than an enigma, since Brands unsparingly itemizes Brown’s cynicism, his habitual lying, his inability to form close human attachments, even his resentment of capitalism. His account of Brown’s midnight murder of five Kansas settlers is as chilling as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (another story of Kansas brutality), and Brown’s own self-image during his trial after Harpers Ferry as a kind of antislavery Christ makes the word sociopath rise to the lips.
Using Lincoln as a counterpoise to Brown might seem at first like a strategy for glorifying Lincoln as exactly the cautious moderate Striner deplores. Brands’s Lincoln is marked by “indecision” in “everything he did”; he sees slavery as a moral evil but only wants to talk about restricting its expansion; his moderation is “innate” and he lacks “a passionate temperament.” But instead of showing this “conservative” Lincoln to have offered a different path from the one recklessly stained by Brown, Brands’s narrative subsides into a certain slackness after Brown’s execution, with Lincoln represented over the final hundred pages by paragraph-long extracts from his speeches, linked by brief threads of description. It is only in the last ten pages that Brands turns seriously to a question he posed at the very beginning: How does a good man challenge a great evil? Brown certainly fails the test of the good man on many points, even though he opposed himself to a great evil. What is surprising is Brands’s judgment that Lincoln may not have offered a significant improvement.
Brands asks: When Lincoln speaks in the second inaugural of every drop of blood drawn by the lash being paid-for by one drawn by the sword, is not Lincoln adopting the same formula as Brown, who prophesied that the crimes of “this guilty land” would never be “purged away but with blood”? After all, Lincoln’s blood purge, when it came, was stupendously more costly than Brown’s. “Was one path more right, or more righteous, than the other?” Brands wonders. It may be that Lincoln “was certainly right in making violence a last resort.” But that only confers on Lincoln “the advantage of legitimacy,” whereas Brands fears that “Brown’s path had the advantage of immediacy.” As Brands says in his acknowledgements, his students at the University of Texas “can’t get enough of Brown.” Lincoln, by contrast, lacks audacity.
Frederick Douglass believed that any estimate of Lincoln’s audacity depended on context. “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent,” Douglass warned, “but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.” But Douglass’s invocation of context, generous as it is, does not help us in addressing a larger question—whether audacity has any place in a constitutional democracy. The founders hoped that the Constitution would be what James Russell Lowell called “a machine that would go of itself,” with no need for audacity from its leaders. And sure enough, as the political theorist Herbert Storing once wrote, American statesmen of Lincoln’s time found it increasingly difficult “to see themselves politically as anything more than mouthpieces of popular opinion.” But the alternative to audacity may be the blandness of the bureaucrat, which Tocqueville feared as the leading edge of a despotism fully as dangerous as the one DiLorenzo thinks he sees in Lincoln—indeed, more so for being soft and managerial. So, in the end, Douglass and Lincoln were right that democratic leadership is neither pure audacity nor pure machinery. It is an elusive mix of the two: humility and self-restraint in the lead, with audacity at the ready when the hour of crisis strikes.
Allen C. Guelzo is a senior research scholar in the Council of Humanities at Princeton University.