Understanding lincoln's demons, and ours

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 2:02 PM

Stephen L. Carter

Finally saw "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" the other day. Once I stopped worrying about the divergence of even the non-supernatural timeline from actual history, I had plenty of guilty fun. I also came away wondering at the upsurge of interest in our 16th president these past few years.

Every season seems to bring a dozen new Lincoln books. Or maybe more than a dozen: Starting this year, visitors to Ford’s Theatre in Washington have been able to view a 34-foot tower constructed largely of some of the 15,000-odd books published about Lincoln. That’s an average of about 100 books each year since he was assassinated. Even an amateur Lincoln buff such as myself can always find fresh reading material.

The Great Emancipator has long been an attractive subject for filmmakers, and over the years many a great actor, from Henry Fonda to Gregory Peck, from F. Murray Abraham to Sam Waterston, has portrayed him. More recently, in addition to his feats slaying vampires, Lincoln has loomed large in the second films of both the "National Treasure" and "Night at the Museum" franchises. He shows up in the "Fight Club" and "Fallout" video games. He will be the subject of a Steven Spielberg epic this fall.

Not every Lincoln appearance in fiction is accurate or even respectful, of course, and few of the many biographies published each year will make the serious buff forget Carl Sandburg or David Herbert Donald. But the way we keep returning to Lincoln suggests a trend, and some explanation is in order. I suspect that our fascination with Lincoln says less about him and his times than it does about us and ours.

Many Americans, looking around at a nation and a world whose problems seem unsolvable, turn toward the past. Our leaders today seem small compared with the heroes of history. There were giants upon the earth in those days, we tell ourselves, even if deep down we know it isn’t true.

History runs over the facts like rushing water, wearing the jagged edges smooth. When today’s politicians invoke the name Lincoln - and they all do, all the time - they mean us to envision the bearded Father Abraham who saved the Union, freed the slaves, and broods over Washington from his intimidating Memorial. They do not conjure the canny politician whose handpicked managers printed thousands of counterfeit tickets to the Republican convention that nominated him for president in 1860, allowing them to fill the seats with "Lincoln men"; or the single-minded commander in chief who, during the Civil War, allowed his secretary of state to shutter opposition newspapers and throw journalists in prison for impeding the war effort.

In any moment of democratic life, we do — or we should — value the means more than the ends. This bias preserves our liberty. Thus it is not enough, or shouldn’t be enough, that the government pursue the right goal. It must also follow a proper method in pursuing its goal. Otherwise we might as well appoint a dictator with whose views we agree, and let it go at that.

This inchoate sense of the importance of means is part of why we pay so much attention to the scandals of a given moment, rather than taking a longer view. Scandals, as a rule, involve abuse of means, not ends.

Viewing events through the lens of history, however, we tend to magnify the ends, not the means. What we see are Lincoln’s acts - winning the Civil War, issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, demanding a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery - and not the means that he might have used to attain them.

In historical terms, this may be correct. We don’t mind the ends precisely because the acts themselves were so mighty - and so moral. But we are able to make this judgment because of our ability, as it were, to look up the answers in the back of the book.

We minimize Franklin Roosevelt’s role in the Japanese internment, because of our reverence for the New Deal and the victory in World War II. We don’t tear down the Jefferson Memorial because of the third president’s dalliance with a slave (bearing in mind that due to the power relation, we could use a stronger word than "dalliance").

We are less forgiving of politicians we see before us, especially in this era of all-politics-all-the-time. Daily we seek out cable outlets and bloggers who will catalog every flaw of those with whom we disagree - a process, as the economist Arnold Kling has noted, of closing our minds further to any disagreement. Naturally today’s leaders seem smaller than the supposed giants of the past.

Ian Watt pointed out half a century ago in "The Rise of the Novel" that before the advent of modern literature, fictional characters tended to have names that made them identifiable types - because, to the audience, seeing the type was more important than seeing the individual. To see the individual was to partake of complexity; to see the type was to partake of simplicity.

The irony of our day is that we style ourselves modern, and yet we want people to be simple again. Depending on political preference, Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, are simply bad guys - no individuality, simply types.

The complexity that sustained U.S. politics through most of the 20th century is dead: In our politics, at least, we have rejected modernity, in search of more primitive models. And it is our growing primitivism that causes us to revere the great figures of the past.

But the end of the book that is the current era has not been written — and won’t be written, in fact, until almost everyone now living is long dead. We should try to remember what Lincoln knew, for he rarely cited other politicians as authority. Rather than invoking the greats of the past, Lincoln preferred to give reasons for his actions, and to leave judgment to the American people.

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