Friday, February 11, 2005

Happy Birthday "Bloody" Abe

Tomorrow is the Birthday of the Greatest President since Washington.

A word about my hierarchy - Washington first, then Lincoln. It is born out of my deep respect for how difficult it is the get something truly great going. In any worthy endeavor, there is a huge amount of sacrifice and "front end" investment at the beginning. How much greater were the sacrifices that it took to begin America? I don't know, but it almost HAD to be greater than any sacrifice that has kept it going. The Founding Fathers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to the cause. In many cases, they lost their lives and / or their fortunes, but kept and validated and thus truly sacralized their "sacred honor." For this reason, I am with those who put Washington first in the hearts of his countrymen. Perhaps Washington's greatest sacrifice was his willingness to deny himself, when he was asked to become America's King and thereby set the precedent for all who followed. It was one of the greatest acts of abnegation ever recorded.

Having said that, America is a place that is being reborn and reinvented all the time. And Lincoln was the man present at our second founding. And here I am now prepared to concede something I have heretofore argued with the Neo-confederates. It now appears to me that Lincoln did, in fact, want war - that is, he was not prepared to forever compromise for peace. And that, in fact, the threshold for war with the South was much lower than the "Northern" myths of Lincoln as a kindly national grandfather could ever allow. This was a serious man, for a serious time, who made serious decisions, and did terrible, but on my view, necessary things.

"Spengler's" column last year on this subject.

February 12 is the birthday of a grim-handed killer who inflicted more casualties on his foes than anything the Russians did in Chechnya. Of course I refer to Abraham Lincoln, whom the Americans have reinvented as a kindly national paterfamilias. War ranks among the strangest forms of willful self-destruction, and America's Civil War of 1861-65 in turn ranks among the strangest of wars. Three-quarters of Southern military age men served in the Confederate ranks, and of these almost 40 percent fell. What prompted these men to cast away their lives with such abandon, and what motivated their enemies to slaughter them? ....

... Lincoln easily could have averted the war by agreeing to let the South acquire slave territories outside of the continental United States. His 1860 election victory (by a minority of votes in a four-way race) provoked a crisis. Future Confederate president Jefferson Davis supported a compromise that would have allowed the South to acquire slave territories to the south. Georgia senator Robert Toombs, along with Davis, the South's main spokesman, pleaded for the compromise that would have given the North "the whole continent to the North Pole" and the South "the whole continent to the South Pole", as Professor May reports.

It was Lincoln, not the Southerners, who shot down the compromise. "A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union ... There is in my judgment, but one compromise which would really settle the slavery question, and that would be a prohibition against acquiring any more territory," he wrote (cited in Robert May). Republicans preferred to fight ....

... A cloud of myth protects Americans from the truth about bloody Abe Lincoln. His statue sits in a mock-Greek temple like the statue of Zeus at Olympus. Chiseled into the marble are Lincoln's words to the nation weeks before the war's end, an abiding source of horror for European tourists: "Fondly do we hope - fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

It sounds like a sort of religious fanaticism that would make the mild Methodist George W Bush hide under the bed-covers. Yet that is how the Northerners sang as off to war they marched: "He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat/He is sifting out the souls of men before his judgment seat/O be swift my soul to answer Him, be jubilant my feet!"

A noteworthy conclusion is that America fought the bloodiest war in its history (and a bloodier war than any in Western Europe since 1648) in order to prevent an imperialist war, that is, out of fanatical religious principle. Americans find it too painful to think about …

I am grateful to this author for his assessment of Lincoln's willingness to go to war, because it is a necessary corrective to some unmitigated bupkus recently spewed forth by a politician I dislike even more than Jimmy Carter. I can quantify my loathing of Jimmy "My initials are no accident" Carter. Having attempted to plumb the depths of my loathing for Mario Cuomo, I have yet to hit bottom. The latest outrage from this portentous, self-important featherweight is this pile of nonsense, reviewed to perfection here.
Occasionally, Cuomo's invidious use of history is not merely crafty, in the way polemical tricks often are. It can be genuinely repulsive. He reasons that because Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American war, which began in 1848, he would have opposed the invasion of Iraq, which began in 2003. "Lincoln's disinclination to go to war unless absolutely unavoidable made the notion of preemptory war abhorrent," Cuomo writes. But in an eerie coincidence, another politician of Lincoln's era did favor preemptory war. Cuomo quotes Jefferson Davis on the decision to fire on Fort Sumter: "To have awaited further strengthening of their position, with hostile purpose now declared, would have been as unwise as it would be to hesitate to strike down the arm of the assailant who levels a deadly weapon at one's breast, until he has actually fired."

Cuomo concludes: "But Lincoln's keen mind, inveterate caution, and strong aversion to violence would have insisted on inarguable proof. In the end, it is fair to say that President Bush settled for much less than that and so did Jefferson Davis." Bush had his war, just as Davis had his. And note the phrase, "it is fair to say." This Cuomo is a mean little man.

No one could make Abraham Lincoln a contemporary liberal without distorting either 2004's liberalism or 1860's Lincoln, and so the distortions of Why Lincoln Matters show up everywhere, in large matters and small. Cuomo says that "with the prescience that was another of his great gifts, Lincoln made clear that the need for government would grow as the people's interactions grew more intense," but even the scholarly Holzer, frantically thumbing his Lincoln books in the back room, can't find a quotation to support this assertion. (Conservatives have had as much trouble trying to make Lincoln a small-government man--it is fair to say.) Lincoln would have opposed "corporate welfare," Cuomo says, though this would be news to the president who signed the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, one of the most expensive government giveaways in history. Cuomo says Lincoln, like Cuomo, was a "passionate" advocate of "inclusion" and "diversity." "At the heart of his struggle and his yearning," he writes, "was always the passion to make room for the outsider and the insistence upon a commitment to respect the idea of equality by fighting for inclusion. Diversity, he said, was not a matter of discord but a bond of union."

CUOMO PRINTS THIS PASSAGE of his twice, once on page ten and then again on page ninety-six, for reasons unknown; he must think it really sings, or maybe he just forgot. In any case, you'll notice that he is deploying the words inclusion and diversity in their contemporary sense, as the cant phrases of identity politics. It should go without saying, but probably doesn't, that Lincoln didn't understand inclusion and diversity in this way. Identity politics--like raising the minimum wage, tightening environmental laws, subsidizing stem-cell research, or any number of policies Cuomo would force upon him--simply didn't occur to him. At the risk of pedantry, I'll point out that Lincoln scarcely used this "language of inclusion" at all. The Collected Works contains one use by Lincoln of the word inclusion, five of diversity, and then only in two senses: diversity of opinion, and the diversity of local governmental arrangements that federalism encourages (not one of Mario Cuomo's pet causes). Next to Mario, Shannon Jones begins to appear as a model of historical modesty.

Every once in a while, junior partner Cuomo hitches up his trousers and walks right into Old Man Lincoln's office and gives him what fer. It's not pretty but it has to be done. These are revealing moments. There are the unhappy matters of Lincoln's many recorded racist remarks and his problematic suspension of various civil rights during the Civil War. "Notwithstanding Lincoln's clever attempts at exculpation," Cuomo writes, "I still wish the great Lincoln had stood by the Constitution despite the strong temptation not to. . . . His transgressions during the war were political heresy, a heresy that made it easier for later presidents, including FDR and George W. Bush, to put aside the law for convenience sake." Ah, Bush. Quickly Cuomo regains the firmer ground. It may be that President Lincoln shuttered newspapers, threatened the arrest of an entire state legislature, deported a troublesome political opponent, and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. But: "President Bush's excesses are worse than even the serious misappropriations of power by Lincoln."
In such moments, the most unattractive quality of Cuomo's historicism comes plainly into view. Cuomo may be blasting Bush, but he is patronizing Lincoln. How do you condescend to such a personage?

Indeed, it can be said without rhetoric, what a mean (in the sense of 'puny' or 'common') little creep. I have far more sympathy with those who call Lincoln the Devil. They, at least, are paying the great man a backhanded compliment.

Anyway, Happy Birthday Abe, and may we NEVER figure you out completely.