Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Garry Wills on Skip Gates’s Lincoln

Gotta hand it to Garry Wills. A while back his book on the Gettysburg Address achieved that glorious two-fer we academic nine-to-fivers can only pine for: best-seller status and a major award (the Pulitzer). Now, when it comes to reviewing Henry Louis Gates’s edited collection, Lincoln on Race and Slavery, with a lengthy and flawed introduction by the non-Lincoln expert Gates, the New York Review of Books taps Wills to review Gates’s book in the bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth.

The title of the review, "Lincoln’s Black History," says all one needs to know of the portrait of the Great Emancipator rendered by Wills. Toni Morrison can rest easy; it’s not one that touts Lincoln as the first black president. His “black” history, with “black” connoting a pejorative (I’m surprised the Review let that pass), is Lincoln’s views and policies regarding blacks in America, which were racist in some form or fashion. How seriously can one take an analysis of Lincoln on race and slavery when Wills gives the last word on Lincoln to his nemesis, an unabashed white supremacist, Stephen A. Douglas?!

Wills agrees with Douglas against Lincoln in his interpretation of what the Founders meant by equality in the Declaration of Independence. Not to worry, though, as Wills assures us that Lincoln’s “bad history” at least promoted a myth that helped Americans produce “good politics.” In short, we all now think the Declaration’s statement that “all men are created equal” really means all people, black and white, male and female—even though the Founders, as Douglas correctly taught us, never meant this. Wills calls Lincoln’s misinterpretation of the Declaration “one of those creative misreadings” that ultimately did us “the favor of fruitfully being wrong.”

Trying to keep this short, let me just say that Wills divides his account of Lincoln’s black history into three categories: slavery, black inferiority, and colonization. These are not bad, but the devil is definitely in Wills’s details, for he quotes Lincoln (and his critics) selectively, and unfairly presents Lincoln’s controversial statements without sufficient context. In some cases, he omits remarks by Lincoln that would lead to opposite conclusions about his view of slavery and blacks.

To cite just one example, he says that Lincoln “did not show a personal revulsion at slavery” right after noting an 1855 letter from Joshua Speed, at the time his closest friend and a slaveholding Kentuckian. The fact that Wills is aware of this letter from Speed suggests Wills is quite aware of Lincoln’s letter to Speed, wherein Lincoln does show a personal revulsion of slavery: “I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet.” Lincoln goes on to say that recalling a shackled group of slaves he saw on a trip down South “was a continued torment to me” and “continually exercises the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.”

Other statements could be cited to support this sentiment of Lincoln’s.

Lincoln’s views of slavery, black Americans, and colonization all deserve greater attention, but neither Wills nor Gates (who also produced a flawed documentary, “Looking for Lincoln,” which aired on PBS in February 2009) shines the proper light on America’s “peculiar institution” or Lincoln’s approach to eliminating it. They have now helped produce a Lincoln for the 21st century that mangles both Lincoln’s legacy and that of the Founders. This makes the public more susceptible to the opinion that what is good in Lincoln had less to do with the United States of America at her birth and more with the notion of an evolving standard of right. Lincoln as a Progressive. Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and their presidential protégé Barack Obama couldn’t be more pleased.

Discussions - 5 Comments

I get what you are saying, but how does one show the "black" history of Lincoln, and then tout him as a Progressive hero? If you are going to tarnish his name, wouldn't he need to be condemned completely?

It sounds Orwellian, to say the least. That, I think, is what scares me. Is the idea behind it something like, "he wasn't as great as you all think, but he was better than the Founders, and we are better than him"...?

You gotta hand it to Garry Wills? Why does Garry Wills keep getting handed to the American reading public, misleading them about the Declaration, now misleading them about Lincoln, and so on? Makes me feel ill. I hate telling non-academics I know who are reading a Wills book, that er...there's a track record of iffiness and tendentiousness there. Sure, I guess he's done a few good things--Jaroslav Pelikan liked his little bio of Augustine, for example.

Lucas, another home run of a posting. Please post more often! I miss the classes I took with you at the summer seminars! You're a great thinker and teacher.

See Wills on Obama's campaign address on Rev. Wright/race for another example of his sophistry. Wills and Obama want utter malleability for the Declaration as a means of keeping in touch with American tradition while completely overthrowing it. In that regard, they are smarter than the Progressives, who sought a clean break and put too much faith in progress in history.

I agree with Tony. This is an excellent post, Lucas. Thanks.

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