Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lincoln's Legacy: Sinner or Saint?

Lincoln Caricature

The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky recently took a look at Lincoln’s place in American history. I encourage you to give the article a look.

The piece examines the way historical interpretations change over time; in other words, the article traces the way Lincoln historiography has evolved.

The piece does a fine job of putting the argument over Lincoln’s legacy in particularly stark terms. The article begins: “Great Emancipator or calculating politician? Principled champion of human rights or flawed compromiser?”

Indeed, many individuals have adopted this sinner-or-saint approach, which I think, is terribly unfortunate. When we reduce the past to mere caricatures, we do a great disservice—not simply to Lincoln or to the past itself—but to all of us living in the present.

Take, for example, the anti-Lincoln crowd. The two most prominent individuals are, of course, Lerone Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo. While Bennett portrays Lincoln as a “white supremacist” who would sooner “deport” African Americans than give them basic civil rights, DiLorenzo argues that Lincoln was America’s greatest tyrant who shredded the constitution, shattered the republic, and replaced it with an all-powerful, oppressive federal government.

Like Bennett and DiLorenzo, neo-Confederates have a penchant for misinterpreting the past, but I find their criticism of Lincoln scholars particularly interesting. They often dismiss Lincoln scholars as simply “court historians” who stick to a “predetermined script” in which they “sweep the truth under the rug” and “glorify” all things Lincoln, while “denigrating his opponents.”

Though these critics paint with far too broad a brush, their observations are not entirely delusional. You see, there are far too many Lincoln folks (I hesitate to use the term scholars, though there are some who fit in this category), who take the term “great figures in American history” a bit too far.

Lincoln was never infallible. Like those who came before him, his contemporaries, and yes, like all of us today, he had serious limitations. He was not the quintessential man, lawyer, or politician. He was human, no more no less. By definition, we are all imperfect beings. To those who argue otherwise, I sharply disagree.

As we approach the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, I would encourage everyone, including my students, peers, and readers of this website, to toss this sinner-or-saint model onto the historical trash heap. Let us approach Lincoln studies from a more sophisticated direction.

Lincoln studies is interested in historical evidence and interpretations; we have no desire to silence critics, but we will engage them in debate. Lincoln studies is not interested in hero worship, nor does it engage in character assassination; we understand that distorted history is little more than fiction in disguise.

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