The anti-Lincoln brigade
By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / December 16, 2008
I am not sure about your plans for Feb. 12, 2009, but I say: Start making them now. It will be an unusual day in history, the bicentennial of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Doubtless my atheist – sorry, "humanist" – pals will be inviting me to Darwin Day parties; it’s their new Christmas. Who knows what the religious fundamentalists will be up to? Prancing around in monkey costumes, perhaps.
Where Lincoln is concerned, no such schism exists. He is "considered by both historians and ordinary Americans to have been the greatest American president," says the taxpayer-supported website of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Oh, really? Tell that to Bragdon Bowling, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. He won’t be lighting any candles for Abraham Lincoln on Feb. 12.
"Lincoln is responsible for the devastation of the founding principles of our country, and you can lay 600,000 bodies at his feet, the casualties of a totally unnecessary war," Bowling told me. As for the bicentennial, "It’s just a continuation of the Lincoln myth-making paid for with public dollars."
Bowling sounds like an outlier crank, but south of the Mason-Dixon line his views aren’t particularly radical. His anti-Lincoln line springs partly from popular culture, and partly from academic scholarship. In the marketplace of ideas the Lincoln-o-phobes lack the throw weight of, say, David Herbert Donald (of Lincoln, Mass.) or Doris Kearns Goodwin. But they are there, for those who want to hear them.
What’s their beef? They view Lincoln as a cynical, self-serving politician with no particular aversion to slavery, who precipitated the Civil War, sorry – the War Against Southern Independence – to keep his Republican party in the White House. "It was all about power," Bowling observed at an anti-Lincoln rally in Richmond in 2003. "All so Lincoln and his friends could consolidate their power to tell other people how to live their lives."
Former University of South Carolina historian Clyde Wilson particularly objects to the beatification of the 16th president as a genial, all-knowing Christ figure trapped in a bloody hecatomb not of his own making. Writing on the website of the Abbeville Institute, a think tank for revisionist Southern scholarship, Wilson calls Lincoln "the tender-hearted leader who authorized ruthless terrorism against women and children, refused generous offers of prisoner exchange while declaring medicine a contraband of war, accepted Grant’s costly policy of losing three men for every one Confederate killed, was not above keeping his own son out of harm’s way, and invited his own fate by clandestinely organizing the attempted assassination of Jefferson Davis."
Wilson sent me a copy of a forthcoming anti-Lincoln article, timed to coincide with the bicentennial. Inter alia, it reserves particular scorn for Boston, whose citizens, Wilson believes, fanned the flames of war to ensure the economic hegemony of the industrial North over the agrarian South. Yankee hypocrisy is a favorite target: "New England shippers got rich in the illegal African slave trade to Cuba and Brazil right up to The War and Bostonians owned slave sugar plantations in Cuba even after The War," he writes.
Wilson even assails Ms. Julia Ward Howe of Mt. Vernon Street, for the "bigotry and blasphemy" of her composition, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." "She subsumes Christ to her secular vengeance and conquest," he explained to me. That’s a little rich, I’d say.
Writer Andrew Ferguson spent time with the Lincoln freaks and the Lincoln phobes to write last year’s "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America." "Both sides cherry-pick the historical record to suit their preconceptions," he says, "and neither side will acknowledge that Lincoln, like most human beings, was an extremely complicated man, a mix of good and bad."
I asked Emory University philosophy professor Donald Livingston, who is also affiliated with the Abbeville Institute, how he plans to celebrate the bicentennial. "It depends what you think about Lincoln," he answered. "If you think the American political order was founded as a federation of states, then Lincoln was the worst president in our history, because more than anyone else he destroyed that ideology. If you think we were intended to be a unitary state modeled on the French revolution, then he is a great president."
"I just don’t have that view, and I will celebrate the bicentennial accordingly."
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