Venerating Lincoln

A history of Abraham Lincoln's critics would be improved if the author weren't so smitten with Lincoln himself.


Loathing Lincoln: An American Tradition from the Civil War to the Present, by John McKee Barr, Louisiana State University Press, 471 pages, $35.95

Abraham Lincoln is widely considered the greatest president in American history, yet there have always been dissenters from this prevailing veneration. In Loathing Lincoln, the Lone Star College historian John McKee Barr offers a comprehensive survey of those who have condemned or simply criticized the 16th president.

These detractors, emerging even before Lincoln's election to the presidency and continuing right to the present, have included southern slaveholders, radical abolitionists, Lincoln's Democratic opponents, anti-imperialists, white supremacists, a small number of prominent African Americans, agrarian romantics, neo-Confederates, conservatives, and libertarians. With impressive and wide-ranging research into books, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, speeches, manuscript collections, and even letters to the editor, Barr's book is an exhaustive and scholarly compendium of those who have found fault with Lincoln. You will encounter in this tome's nearly 500 pages such diverse figures as Lysander Spooner, Lord Acton, H.L. Mencken, Gore Vidal, William Appleman Williams, and Ron Paul.

Given the major role that admiration for Lincoln still plays today in popular perceptions about American history and, as a result, in political discourse, any study that looks at Lincoln's critics is a valuable exercise. Reason readers will probably find Barr's final two chapters most interesting. One covers the debate over Lincoln among conservatives from 1949 to 1989—a debate that played out most prominently in the pages of National Review, with Willmoore Kendall and Frank Meyer disapproving of Lincoln while Harry Jaffa served as the Rail Splitter's champion. The other chapter looks at Lincoln's libertarian critics and defenders, including Murray Rothbard and Thomas DiLorenzo on the anti side and Timothy Sandefur on the pro. My own book on the Civil War, Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, figures in the chapter as well.

Barr's summaries of what Lincoln's critics specifically wrote and said are largely accurate. I could quibble about some of his phrasing. For instance, Barr states: "Lincoln was therefore the cause, as Hummel (and Rothbard before him) put it, of 'the welfare-warfare State of today'" (emphasis mine). That is not precisely what I have asserted with regard to either timing or responsibility. What I claimed is that the Civil War represents the great watershed in American history. Prior to the war, successive ideological surges had brought about the long-term, secular erosion of power at all levels of government; the Civil War dated the reversal of this trend. Similarly, Barr's characterization of my Journal of Libertarian Studies review of Thomas Woods' Politically Incorrect Guide to American History as "brutally critical" is an exaggeration. I was very critical of parts of Woods' analysis, especially his discussion of Reconstruction. But mine was a mixed review that defended other parts of his book from some of the more blanket, vituperative attacks, including one published here in reason.

There is also a curious omission in Barr's chapter covering today's libertarians: He fails to mention that one of the Lincoln critics he discusses, Walter Williams of George Mason University, is an African American. Yet this is something Barr faithfully points out about every other African American who criticized Lincoln, all of whom, unlike Williams, could be fairly described as left-leaning. Nor does Barr hesitate to mention that Thomas Sowell, a conservative proponent of Lincoln, is black.

The major problems with Loathing Lincoln, however, are more general. Let's start with the title. While it may represent clever marketing, loathing is a very harsh word, implying a personal animosity that goes well beyond mere criticism. The book is laced with similar terms or phrases to describe Lincoln critics, such as "malice," "rage," "contempt," "despise," and most frequently "hatred." Many Lincoln detractors have clearly exhibited such emotions, especially the further you go back in time. But a scholar should be scrupulous with this accusation, making it only when the evidence justifies doing so.

To a limited extent Barr recognizes this. He exempts from the charge of loathing most of the abolitionists and African Americans who complained that Lincoln did not move fast enough to abolish slavery or that he harbored racist views. Barr also gives a pass to a few revisionist historians, such as Charles Ramsdell and James Randall, who saw the Civil War as an unnecessary conflict brought on by a blundering generation of politicians. My own book is apparently among the exempt as well, since Barr calls it "a reputable and scholarly work." But otherwise he can be overly promiscuous in his explicit and implicit wielding of the loathing allegation.

This goes hand in hand with a second general flaw. Barr conceives his task as not just surveying but also disputing Lincoln detractors. His factual criticisms are, more often than not, correct. (There are a few I would challenge, such as his cursory acceptance of Allen Guezlo's claim that the Civil War had no significant impact on the federal budget. Guezlo partly based this bizarre conclusion on a crudely misleading calculation of the inflation-adjusted value of 1865 government expenditures as a percent of U.S. gross domestic product in 2011, not 1865.) The problem comes when Barr's disagreements go beyond factual matters to political values.

Historians do not have to exculpate the outrages of the past in order to empathically understand the motives of historical actors on their own terms. But Barr never comes close to any kind of Olympian detachment. To offer just two examples, he deplores the erection of "monuments to Confederate military and political heroes" in the post-Civil War South as an "insolent criticism of…Abraham Lincoln," and he excoriates the residents of Troy, Alabama—after a Confederate veteran erected "a small memorial honoring John Wilkes Booth…in his front yard around 1901" that embarrassed his neighbors—merely because the residents failed to order the memorial removed from "his own property" until "northerners protested" (emphasis his). Is it too much to ask that he be slightly more charitable to a people, admittedly all whites living in a land of segregation, who had been crushed in a devastating war? Isn't such charity something Lincoln called for in his second inaugural address?

Barr's frustration with some of the recent vehement condemnations of Lincoln is more understandable. Unfortunately, this is where he egregiously and without warrant plays the race card. Barr boldly proclaims that a "disgruntled and dissatisfied…mix of anarcho-capitalists, radical libertarians, and traditional conservatives" have "criticized Lincoln in order to attack the federal government and its ongoing support for civil rights and civil liberties for formerly marginalized groups." These critics, he writes, are motivated by opposition to "the political, racial, and sexual egalitarianism…resulting from the liberation movements of the post-Cold War era." While undoubtedly true of some, this broad-brush approach blurs crucial distinctions among these individuals.

Barr writes as though the chief reason anyone opposes federal intervention is a fear of racial equality. He furthermore worries that "contemptuous portrayal of Lincoln" could make Americans "hopelessly pessimistic that the federal government has any role to play in addressing national or international problems" (emphasis his), and that it indeed has already "helped delegitimize the nation's government and made effective governance, at least at the federal level, less likely, if not impossible, to achieve." He then has the nerve to turn around and accuse Lincoln opponents of trying to "alter the president's image in order to serve their political agenda," as though Loathing Lincoln didn't have an agenda of its own.

At times Barr is a mirror image of those who genuinely loathe Lincoln. He can brook hardly any negative evaluations of the 16th president. Witness his hostile tone toward those who objected when Bruce Barton's 1925 book, The Man That Nobody Knows, equated Lincoln with Jesus. Or his reprimanding those northern newspapers that had the sheer audacity to critique Lincoln's second inaugural by calling it "slip shod," "sophomoric," or "glittering generalities." Blinded by his reverence for the Great Emancipator, he is oblivious to the germ of a second, important book lurking within his volume, a book that could be titled Worshipping Lincoln. In discussing Lincoln's foes, Barr unwittingly offers a revealing glimpse into the long history of Lincoln idolatry.

Barr does admit that Lincoln was "a flawed human being"; that "part of the decline in Lincoln's reputation was probably inevitable" after World War II, as Americans became "more skeptical of authority"; and that some accusations against Lincoln, such as the charge that he harbored racial prejudices of his own, are "partially correct." But when he finally arrives at Loathing Lincoln's 10-page conclusion, Barr loses all perspective and descends into polemics. He concludes that "the contest over Lincoln's image from the nineteenth century onward has been nothing less than part of the struggle over whether freedom and equality are for the many, particularly people of color, or for the few." What makes this especially regrettable is that Barr is a good enough researcher and writer that he could have produced a far more valuable and perhaps enduring intellectual history, if only he had exercised a little more self-restraint.

Both those who loathe and those who worship Lincoln have lost their perspective. Though I object to the Lincoln cult, I have nonetheless distanced myself from the simplistic Lincoln bashing that can sometimes issue, for different reasons, from both extreme neo-Confederates and extreme neo-abolitionists. Like so many successful politicians, the 16th president was a complex combination of lofty idealism and cunning opportunism, with many likeable qualities and an exceptional mastery of the English language. Although I deplore many of his policies, why should subjecting Lincoln to the same searching scrutiny applied to other leaders throughout history be construed as hatred? Many of Lincoln's actions, particularly leading the country into a war—whether ultimately justified or not—were absolutely required by the political dynamics of the emerging Republican Party. The war would have likely been prosecuted by any of the other potential Republican candidates of 1860 if any one of them had been elected president instead. If the northern Democrat, Stephen Douglas, had been elected and the lower South had still seceded (an admittedly doubtful counterfactual), he would have been at least as implacable in suppressing secession.

The really fundamental issue behind these Lincoln squabbles is the Civil War itself, a conflict with both enormous costs and a momentous accomplishment. It decisively ended within the United States the vile institution of chattel slavery. Although the abolition of slavery was an unintended consequence of the war, the moral significance of this accomplishment cannot be overrated. But does that necessarily justify all of the war's enormous bloodshed and suffering, inflicted in many cases on the entirely innocent? Does that necessarily make all the political, economic, and social consequences of the war desirable? If the primary goal of Northerners had been to eliminate slavery rather than to preserve the Union, were there other conceivable options that might have destroyed the slave system by the end of the 19th century?

At one point, Barr grants that Lincoln and the Civil War pose "extraordinarily difficult historical problems" and "tough questions." Unfortunately, the book's overall message doesn't differ from the politically correct consensus that dominates Civil War scholarship today, in which any extended consideration of problems other than slavery is considered morally obtuse. As a historical fact, almost no one denies that it was the war that brought emancipation. Yet if history is to be more than just a factual rendition of past events, if we hope to make history something from which we derive insights, lessons, and perhaps even a moral sensibility, why foreclose any exploration of untried alternatives to war's carnage?