Hitchens on Lincoln

Here's the view from the White House as the new president gazes gloomily out of its windows in 1861. The Washington Monument is an abandoned stump, surrounded by scattered blocks of stone. The Capitol has no dome. Slaves toil in the stinking heat, and the Potomac is an open sewer. The Union itself is dissolving like sugar in water. Furious men of god make violent speeches on both sides of the case. In correspondence and in conversation, the big, awkward, provincial politician sometimes observes that he always thought that the idea of a democratic republic would have to survive some kind of cruel ordeal before it could be proven.

To be remembered—to be really and truly and historically remembered and unforgettable—is to be terse and necessarily, sometimes, to be bleak: "And the war came …," "If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong," "Half slave and half free …," "Of the people, by the people, for the people." The last excerpt is taken from a speech so masterfully brief and understated that the photographer who hoped to record the speaker for the ages did not have enough time to set up his equipment. The two greatest Lincolnian addresses can each fit on one panel of a memorial in Washington that contains a brooding seated sculpture built much less modestly and more to the Ceausescu scale. What does this contrast say?

Our newest president will never have an unphotographed public moment and has a wife whose ancestors were chattel in Lincoln's era. He has taken more time to answer simple media questions than his Illinois predecessor took to deliver a speech at Gettysburg that, it was thought by its author, "the world will little note nor long remember." When Barack Obama booked rooms in the Hay-Adams hotel, one both hopes and believes that he remembered what John Hay wrote of Lincoln ("the greatest character since Christ") but also, in this time of capitalist crisis, bore in mind what Henry Adams said, about the warmest friend of Lincoln and the Union's being Karl Marx. The heavy, brooding statue on the Mall may try to impose unanimity, but the imperishable words on the walls show that there must always be a historic argument. And there must always have been one: those who prate glibly about a "team of rivals" have not really understood that Chase and Seward and Cameron and Stanton were in fact a crew of venomous enemies, all of whom underestimated their leader.

We are not dealing with a plaster saint, then, but the micro-politician Abe and the macro-statesman Lincoln need not be incompatible. The man who defended slavery and the man who initiated its final abolition were one and the same, both selves bidding for votes and also heedful to legalism, to property rights and to the Constitution. Born and raised on the harsh frontier between two irreconcilable systems, Lincoln was geographically predisposed to see both sides. He was 17 years of age when his most admired Thomas Jefferson died. Jefferson had doubled the size of the Union, but only by permitting the fatal extension of slavery into the new territories. Before Lincoln could take his own oath of office, the Union was being maimed and amputated at the rate of about one state per week, and there came a vertiginous moment when trains from New England and New York could not reach Washington, D.C., because of secessionist spirit in Maryland. By the time of Lincoln's own death, the United States had not merely been restored, but was on the verge of becoming a global industrial and political superpower. And—once again to stress how much can be conveyed in how few words—one must remember that, before Gettysburg, people would say, "the United States are …" After Gettysburg, they began to say, "the United States is." Was there ever a nuance that contained more historical punch? To put it in another four economical words: no Lincoln, no nation.

Mild and humorous though he could be (his penchant for dirty jokes is still one of those things that they don't teach you in school), Lincoln had, and probably had to have, his fanatical and mirthless and absolutist side. He would never allow anyone in his hearing to refer to "President" Jefferson Davis, or to any "Confederate state," let alone to any "Congress" held at Richmond. He had sworn a great oath to preserve and protect and defend the Union, and those who underestimated him on this point were to repent bitterly among the ashes of their once-proud oligarchy. He was, at all times and in all places, the president of the United States. He would not concede one inch of Virginia or Texas, and he would not allow himself to rest until the great reunion had been consecrated. He may have died, shot from behind, as the last casualty of the war, but the complete, unassailable dignity of Jefferson's term, "Mr. President," was never to be denied to Abraham Lincoln, even by the most paltry and envious of his foes.

"Sic semper tyrannis"—or so it is said that the posturing, histrionic, racist murderer John Wilkes Booth managed to yell from the stage at Ford's Theatre. If given a blind test and asked which "tyrannical" president had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, closed the most newspapers, arrested the most political rivals, opened and censored the most mail and executed the most American citizens without trial, few students would mention the "Great Emancipator" as the original supremo of big government. But the facts must be faced, as Lincoln faced them. Until the Union itself could be considered safe and whole again, the Constitution—written for the entire Union and, in a sense, representing it—did not really apply, even though the president's "inherent powers" most certainly did. (I give this as my own interpretation, as well as to distinguish Lincoln's drastic emergency measures from some later and more recent ones. Hateful and menacing as it is, Islamic terrorism does not immediately threaten us with secession and disunion and the reduction of millions of Americans to involuntary servitude.)

Put a different way, one might still say that if the Constitution was to be suspended at all, even for a short time, then there had better be some damned good explanation. Among those possible reasons, could one perhaps mention the restoration of the Union and the abolition of slavery? I have never seen any argument that the suspension of habeas corpus, say, shortened the existence of slavery or the duration of the war. But I think sometimes that one can intuit what Lincoln—who had no special relish for this kind of thing—believed he was really doing: he was showing his enemies that there could be no compromise and that there was no going back. He was telling them—and what fools they were not to notice this—that he would coldly incinerate Atlanta before he would see the Union undone. He was announcing that his earlier legalistic respect for the "property rights" of slaveholders had been misconstrued as permission for treason, and that he didn't like being taken advantage of, no sir, not by half. He was spelling it out—in a "fiery message, writ in burnished rows of steel," as Julia Ward Howe put it.

Many clever scholars have pointed out that Lincoln's commitments to the Union and to abolitionism were not at all the same thing. And nor were they. He said himself that if he could have preserved the Union without freeing a single slave, he would have done so. He postponed the Emancipation Proclamation for as long as he could, and when one reads its glum and strained and limited phrases—so unlike his customary orations—one is uneasily reminded that he was a lifelong martyr to constipation. How bizarre, to free slaves only where his forces could not reach and to keep slaves in the regions where his armies held sway! Yet he knew that he had taken an irreversible step and became more and more proud of having done so. And each step logically necessitated a further one, whether the measure was surreptitiously baptized as a "military necessity" or not. It was a distinct advance over his hero, Jefferson, who had been opposed in principle to slavery while actually being committed to extending it.

This stealth anti-property revolution is why the American Left used to positively idolize Lincoln. The cream of American Communism named its fighting force in the Spanish Civil War the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, and there used to be "Lincoln-Lenin" parades in New York in the 1930s. Aaron Copland's folksy and fellow-traveling 1942 "Fanfare for the Common Man" had been preceded by his orchestral "Lincoln Portrait." Karl Marx's letter to Lincoln, congratulating him on his re-election in 1864 and delivered to Ambassador Charles Francis Adams in London (who offered a rather polite reply), said that "the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class" (another thing they don't tend to teach you in school). Indeed, on almost every occasion upon which Lincoln spoke of slavery, he mentioned not just the moral objection but the cruel theft of the labor power of the oppressed—something that he had himself experienced in a lesser form of serfdom when hired out by his father as a "hand" in Kentucky.

How irritating for the Left, then, that the Republican Party has been able to call itself "the Party of Lincoln" (as the Whig Party would have been able to do, if it had lived). Edmund Wilson in his "Patriotic Gore," and the less patriotic Gore Vidal in his brilliant 1984 novel "Lincoln," both make the comparison between Honest Abe and Otto von Bismarck: 19th-century popular frontmen for the rise of the unified, centralized, modern capitalist and authoritarian state. Wilson also drew the Lenin parallel, and some on the very traditional American Right still continue to do the same, if for radically different reasons. A hundred years after Lincoln's murder, an editorial in William F. Buckley's National Review depicted him as "essentially negative to the genius and freedom of our country" and a sworn foe of states' rights as well as a pitiless advocate of indiscriminate war upon civilians. Visit the neo-Confederate (by no means neo-con) Web sites, and you will find this same flame of resentment being assiduously nursed to this very day.

That argument now seems somewhat antique. But it is the prefiguration of many other conflicts. The American Civil War was once called "the last of the old wars and the first of the new" because it began with cavalry and infantry and bugles and ended with the grinding, ruthless force of mechanized artillery and ironclad vessels. Rural in origin though he was, Lincoln spanned the transition of the United States from the log cabin where he never really lived to the colossus of mercantilism and industry that soon made the British empire aware that cotton-based Southern feudalism had been the wrong side—one might even say horse—to back.

On Feb. 12, 1809, a few time zones away from Kentucky, Charles Darwin also drew his first breath. It's impossible not to ask oneself which of the two has been the greatest emancipator. And there may be no necessary contradiction. Lincoln's old law partner, William Herndon, author of one of the best studies of the man, reports that young Abe was an early admirer of Thomas Paine and Voltaire, and had read Darwin before most people had heard of him. "He soon grew into a belief of a universal law, evolution, and from this he never deviated." This phrase ought to leap from the page, because it illustrates so precisely why Lincoln moved toward abolitionism by means of graduated stages—evolutionary rather than revolutionary phases. It perfectly expresses his fatalism and pessimism, allied to his unquenchable feeling that one had to know an evil when one saw it. Even when he was least inclined to condemn the system of slavery outright, Lincoln was quite sure that it could not "long endure."

I would myself love to claim Lincoln as an atheist ancestor, but I must confess myself beaten. He was emphatically not a Christian—the name of Jesus never seems to have escaped his lips in spite of many beseeching requests that he accept the savior—but he referred too often to a supervising and presiding deity for one to be able to allege that he did so only to obtain votes or approval. Utterly paradoxical though his views may have been, even leading him to speculate that god might have wanted slavery and only then decreed a bloody war to cancel the original sin, he could not imagine that mere mortals were the sole measure of all things. We may choose to think that we know better. In a magnificent 1948 essay entitled "Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth," the historian Richard Hofstadter made the accidentally beautiful diagnosis that our 16th president had learned to practice the art of "deliberate and responsible opportunism." Those words actually describe rather well the parabola along which Lincoln calibrated the timing of emancipation with the cause of the Union, synchronizing and synthesizing the two so that they eventually became indistinguishable. How nice to see opportunism given such a good name. How fervently may we wish to see the same fusion of courage and pragmatism in our own day. And how impossible it is to forget this craggy and wretched and haunted man, invoking of all things our "better angels."