The Elusive Lincoln


Freedom: A Novel of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, by William Safire, New York: Doubleday, 1123 pages, $24.95

William Safire has written an enormous book. It offers the reader a 975-page narrative, along with a 147-page "underbook" of "sources and commentary" and a bibliography of 320 books that Safire consulted. The narrative is divided into nine parts; Safire uses each to alter the focus slightly as the story proceeds. His narrative, which covers the time period from July 1861 to the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, encompasses virtually the whole array of important (and unimportant) historical characters and viewpoints.

From the earliest pages, the largest issues loom. What is the war primarily about? Is Lincoln justified in his use of "extraconstitutional" measures to "preserve" the union? Safire's rich sweep of events devotes major attention to a wide cast of characters with widely diverging views. Kentucky Senator John Breckinridge, who preferred peaceful separation by the southern states rather than a war that undermined certain constitutional liberties, provides a compelling contrast to abolitionists like Senator Benjamin Wade or pro-unionists, including pamphleteer Anna Ella Carroll and the prominent Washington family headed by Francis Prescott Blair. Depictions of General George McClellan elucidate the military dilemmas of conducting a successful war in the face of politicians hungering for immediate action. Amidst this cast, Abraham Lincoln is still at the center of every part of the book. As he must be.

"The Lincoln legend," historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his famous essay in The American Political Tradition, "has come to have a hold on the American imagination that defies comparison with anything else in political mythology." A tall thing to say, indeed, but a moment's reflection will validate Hofstadter's view. It is perhaps the case that more has been written about Lincoln than any other statesman in history. He continues to fascinate and compel attention because of his elusiveness. The real Lincoln is hard to identify and understand. The same man who was a student of Shakespeare and the classics, who brought formidable dialectical skills to public debate, was also given to telling folksy stories and cornball jokes to important people at important moments.

It requires a very keen political mind to discern the unity of thought and purpose in Lincoln's words and deeds. A vast horde of historians, many of them unequal to the task, has flogged every imaginable source and offered every plausible vision and revision. Fiction has now taken up the challenge. Historical fiction has an advantage over standard history. As Safire tells it in his commentary, historical fiction can make use of "informed guesswork to come to conclusions that the known facts alone cannot fully sustain." Fiction, in other words, can get at the truth, even if it lacks "historical" veracity. Safire justifies this enterprise by citing the 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke: "Fact has a spiritual content.…It is our job to recognize how it really took place.…intuition is required."

Gore Vidal attempted this same project recently, and failed. Vidal raised the ire of historians who found his speculations wholly implausible or even outrageous, and the political Lincoln he presented was largely disconnected from the principles and ideas expressed in Lincoln's many speeches and writings. Safire is much more scrupulous, offering factual or circumstantial justifications for his interpolations. Where none is possible, he admits to fiction without apology. But Safire, like Vidal, has an argument to make about Lincoln, an argument with some resonance for today's debate about executive prerogative. Despite his painstaking research and caution, however, the real Lincoln eludes Safire's account in the same way he eluded Vidal's, and for the same reason.

Lincoln had a serious and carefully thought out political teaching. But because he wrote no systematic account, and because as a practical politician his political ideas had to be subsumed to circumstances, his political teaching often remains obscure, even to a mind as fine as Safire's. Safire's Lincoln is divorced from his rich political teaching. Safire fails to grasp the vital relationship between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—a relationship that was absolutely central to Lincoln's teaching and statecraft.

For instance, Safire has Anna Carroll wondering "if it was such a good idea for Lincoln to invoke the days of the Declaration of Independence, with its radical 'all men are created equal,' soon set aside by the more conservative framers of the Constitution." We might let this un-Lincolnian understanding pass by were it limited to observers such as Anna Carroll or Lincoln's secretary, John Hay; but Safire ascribes this understanding to Lincoln himself on the final page, when Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation: "Its roots were not in the cool compromises of the Constitution, but in the heat and fervor of the Declaration of Independence. He was in the end at one with the revolutionaries of 1776, at odds with the cool compromisers of 1787." (Emphasis added.)

Far from being a sentence that just slipped out, Safire shows this to be his considered judgment when, in the middle of the book, he wonders: "Lincoln was a man of the Declaration of Independence, with its radical 'all men are created equal,' while [Breckinridge] was a man of the Constitution, with its compromises, balances, and conservatism. Which was more American?"

Wrong question. To be faithful to Lincoln, and therefore to be able to comprehend his statecraft, one must understand his view of the relation between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. True it is that Lincoln said, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence." But Lincoln understood the Constitution to be an instrument complementary, not contradictory, to the Declaration. The Declaration set out the ends of free government—equal rights—and the Constitution was the means to secure those ends.

Lincoln's most memorable formulation of the natural harmony between the two documents was his invocation of Proverbs 25:11, about how a word "fitly spoken" was like "an apple of gold within a picture of silver." The Declaration was the apple of gold, and the Constitution the picture of silver. "The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple," Lincoln wrote, "but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture."

Lincoln understood, and accepted, the necessity for compromise over slavery when the Constitution was written in 1787. He frequently cited Henry Clay—a slave owner—on the necessity of the slavery compromise and the awful dilemma it posed for future American statesmen. In his Eulogy to Clay, Lincoln noted with prescience: "Cast into life where slavery was already widely spread and deeply seated, he did not perceive, as I think no wise man has perceived, how it could be at once eradicated, without producing a greater evil, even to the cause of human liberty itself."

We can see in Lincoln's rhetoric the balance of principle and moderation. He often compared slavery to cancer. It is not always possible to excise the malignancy without causing the patient to bleed to death, but neither is it possible for it to spread without causing death. Lincoln understood before he was president that he could not rightly threaten slavery where it existed, without violating the principle of the very "Charter of Freedom" he sought to uphold. That is why Lincoln was never an abolitionist. But Lincoln understood that slavery could not be permitted to spread to the Western territories, without also violating the central principle the Constitution was intended to establish.

The goal of the Republican Party at its founding was to place slavery "in the course of ultimate extinction" by preventing its spread. If the Union could be held intact and slavery prohibited in the Western territories, slavery would be in the course of ultimate extinction. This the South could not accept. One observer, apparently not consulted by Safire, who understood the situation with great clarity was John Stuart Mill, who wrote in December 1861: "The day when slavery can no longer extend itself, is the day of its doom. The slave-owners know this, and it is the cause of their fury."

Safire's book is largely oblivious to the substantive view guiding Lincoln's statecraft. Instead, for Safire, Lincoln's central purpose is majority rule: "If the experiment of this republic was to work, the majority had to rule—all the time, with no exceptions." Nowhere does Safire offer an account of how Lincoln's idea of majority rule differed from that of Stephen Douglas's majoritarianism of "popular sovereignty." It was over precisely this point that Lincoln and Douglas clashed in 1858.

Lincoln understood that majority rule was merely a practical substitute for the unanimous consent over first principles, the principles spelled out in the Declaration of Independence. Majority rule made no sense without reference to those principles. A majority cannot, in Lincoln's view, vote to enslave itself—or others—and remain consistent with democratic principles. The secession of the South was much more than a defiance of simple majority rule; it was a repudiation of the unanimous consent over the founding principles of America.

Thus Lincoln's opposition to slavery and his dedication to preserving the Union rested on the same ground, which is why for Lincoln the war to preserve the Union and the war to abolish slavery quickly became one and the same struggle. Safire, following Stephen Douglas, interprets majority rule simply, and misses entirely Lincoln's understanding, thus distorting the meaning of events and doing a grave disservice to the reader. Safire describes Lincoln's thoughts on emancipation as a "newly embraced cause—not his original, central cause of majority rule."

Safire portrays Lincoln's gradual move toward the Emancipation Proclamation primarily as an expediency to boost the war effort. This function it certainly achieved, and Safire excellently captures this dimension. But the apple of gold is missing from Safire's picture of silver. Again, John Stuart Mill provides a better guide: "The Republicans well know that if they can reestablish the Union, they can gain everything for which they originally contended; and it would be a plain breach of faith with Southern friends of the Government, if, after rallying them round its standard for a purpose of which they approve, it were suddenly to alter its terms of communion without their consent."

Mill saw from a distance what Lincoln knew, that the middle ground that marked the clearest common denominator of Union opinion could not long remain the ground of policy. Mill wrote: "I at least have foreseen and foretold from the first, that if the South were not promptly put down, the contest would become distinctly an anti-slavery one." Mill, writing in December 1861, gave the end of summer 1862 as the time for this transformation to take place—exactly as it occurred.

And so Safire's book ends with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The book cannot continue after this point. For Safire, this was the ultimate moment of the Civil War. But for Lincoln, this was the penultimate moment. The ultimate moment came at Gettysburg, when, in the most important political speech in American history, Lincoln defined the meaning of the present struggle—to complete "a new birth of freedom." In the end it is fortunate that Safire's book closes where it does. It is worrisome to contemplate, had the narrative continued, how he would have handled the Lincoln of Gettysburg.

There is much to commend in Safire's book. It is rich in detail and vivid in its portrayal. But on its central character, Lincoln, Safire is wrong. And it is on the understanding of the central figure that such an enterprise stands or falls. Safire has given us a fragmentary Lincoln, who might well say of this effort: "A book divided against itself cannot stand."

Steven Hayward, a doctoral student in American studies at Claremont Graduate School, is editor of The Claremont Review of Books.