Why a small band of college professors argues that the 16th President was the worst in U.S. history
By JEFF CHU
Posted Sunday, Jun. 26, 2005
When the guns fell quiet after five hours of fighting on Nov. 30, 1864, nearly 9,000 men lay dead or wounded on the fields of Franklin, Tenn. The short, savage Battle of Franklin claimed one soldier every two seconds. Three-quarters of the casualties were on the Confederate side, which lost six generals–and the battle. For a few hours on a blustery Saturday in April, the fight returned to Franklin. In a conference room at a Super 8 motel near the battlefield, about 75 people met for a seminar organized by a Southern-nationalist group called the League of the South. At the lectern, University of South Carolina history professor Clyde Wilson, who edited the papers of antebellum leader and states’-rights advocate John C. Calhoun, rasped through a declamation against Abraham Lincoln (the subject of a great American "fable"), the Republican Party ("It has never done and will never do anything for the South") and Northerners ("They don’t have any identity except in kicking us around"). He wasn’t joking. "Those who want to wipe out our memories want to wipe us out as well," he said. "They are like the Taliban."
Wilson and the rest of a small, scrappy band of like-minded professors see themselves as intellectual warriors. They teach history—and philosophy, religion and politics—from what they call the "Southern tradition," at top universities like Emory and the University of Virginia as well as at seminars held by groups like the Abbeville Institute and the secessionist League of the South, which claims to have 8,500 members in 48 states. The professors’ retro view of history prevailed in much of American academia until the emergent civil rights and feminist movements helped develop a more complex approach to the subject in the 1950s and ’60s. Some ideas espoused by that remnant of the Southern faithful—such as the emphasis on states’ rights and the push for smaller government—are finding growing sympathy among conservatives and libertarians, even if their vilification of Lincoln and desire for secession keep those academics out of the mainstream. Not that popularity has ever been a big concern. After all, Wilson told the Franklin gathering, "we have the truth." You have probably heard parts of their "truth" before: There was no Civil War, no battle over one government. It was a "war between the states," a "war of Northern aggression" or, in the genteel parlance of Charlestonians, "Mr. Lincoln’s war." Slavery was the pretext. The real purpose was the subjugation of the South. And the big villain, of course, is Lincoln.
Most Americans never hear that version of history, which is why the League of the South runs seminars like the one in Franklin and why Emory philosophy professor Donald Livingston started the more academically minded Abbeville Institute in 1998. "Suppose that the best solution in 1860 was to divide the Union," he says. "Then history looks completely different." Each summer, the Institute invites 30 college and graduate students to a week of lectures different from any they would get at their home institutions—schools like Harvard, the Air Force Academy and Vanderbilt.
The theme of this year’s summer school, scheduled to take place next week not in Franklin, Tenn., but in Franklin, La., is "Rethinking Lincoln: The Man, the Myth, the Symbol, the Legacy." "Rethinking" is generous; those scholars have already rethought. In Wilson’s telling of the tale, Lincoln’s climb was "driven by an almost pathological ambition for political advancement." He says Lincoln’s law partner William Herndon called Lincoln’s ambition "a little engine that knew no rest"—which makes Lincoln no different from many politicians, except, his detractors say, for the cost to the country and to the South.
The professors blame Lincoln for using the pretext of war to create Big Government by levying all kinds of new federal taxes. Worse, he invented corporate welfare. He became "a water carrier for Big Business," says Thomas DiLorenzo, an economist at Loyola College in Maryland and author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War. He points to projects like the transcontinental railroad, which was subsidized by up to $48,000 in federal bonds (about $900,000 in today’s dollars) per mile. "Federal dollars had never been used like that," he says. "After that, other companies came along and said, Where’s mine?"
Lincoln’s "greatest wrong," says religion scholar William Wilson, an assistant dean at Virginia, "was that he wrecked the republic of the Founders." The professors say Lincoln repeatedly invoked the opening of the Declaration of Independence—"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …"—but ignored the end, which talks about the "full Power" of the states. In the name of freedom for the slaves, he turned a loose-knit club of states into a tightly bound country under a strong central government. And he did it with a heavy military hand. "Lincoln provoked the South," says Marshall De Rosa, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. "Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee—these states reluctantly left the Union."
The Lincoln loathing gets personal, with the kind of gossip that might be served with a glass of sweet tea on a Southern porch. Have you heard he was probably an atheist? That he loved dirty jokes? As for the wife and kids, Clyde Wilson is caustic: "Why did Mary go crazy? Some said her symptoms looked like advanced syphilis, but I don’t stress that. People complained that Lincoln’s children were pests, and he kept his military-age son Robert at Harvard for most of the war, finally giving him a safe place on Grant’s staff."
The scholars can come off as petty, so some might wonder why, in 2000, the liberal Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) bothered to take on the League of the South, labeling it a hate group. With such academics in their ranks, the league "has real influence on Southern politics and history, and they’re spreading misinformation," says Mark Potok, director of the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, who calls the league "white supremacist." Members of the league insist it is not racist, and they counter that it is the victim of bigotry against the South’s heritage. But its leaders have defended the ultimate form of racism: slavery. In 1998 league president J. Michael Hill, who taught history for years at historically black Stillman College in Alabama, wrote in an e-mail to members, "No apologies for slavery should be made. When practiced in accord with Holy Scripture, it is not a sin." Hill stands by the comment today, saying only, "I was brought up to show Christian charity to everyone."
Even with such baggage, some prominent academics argue that the Lincoln loathers add something important to the debate about the 16th President and his legacy. Princeton Civil War historian James McPherson says it’s important to have "people out there challenging the current orthodoxy. They may not persuade me, but they might ask some challenging questions that force me to rethink my positions."
All that questioning can tire even thehardiest rebel. "Radical dissidence is fun," says Clyde Wilson, but it’s also wearying. He will retire next year after 35 years in the classroom. Before he does, he plans to teach his trademark course on Southern cultural and intellectual history one more time. The last book on the syllabus will be, as always, a William Faulkner novel about a Southern family’s struggle to preserve its way of life. It is called The Unvanquished.