Sean Wilentz is one of America’s most gifted and accomplished historians. But, as a polemicist, he is prone to stumbles. In his lengthy review-essay on recent Lincoln scholarship, the two identities clash--to the detriment of historical understanding.
His general thesis should be beyond dispute: In and out of office, Lincoln always thought and acted as a politician, “adapting principles to circumstances, figuring out the most feasible way to move the country ahead.” And Wilentz’s critique of historians and literary critics who judge Lincoln by what passes for racial enlightenment in the academy today is sound, if unoriginal. A few years back, Eric Arnesen wrote for The New Republic a brilliant takedown of “whiteness” scholarship, making points Wilentz only echoes.
But throughout the Lincoln essay, there runs a false dichotomy between understanding the 16th president as a clever politician and celebrating him as an inspiring leader. Figures as different as Whitman, Douglass, Emerson, and the future Populist leader Ignatius Donnelly came to revere Lincoln because of how he expressed the best ideals of the nation and because he led the Union to victory. As Emerson put it, “Rarely was man so fitted to the event.” Every transformative president--from Jefferson to FDR--has risen to the occasion, with both stirring rhetoric and decisive actions. It’s strange that so canny a historian as Wilentz devotes so much space to attacking recent writers on the left who focus on what Lincoln said while he pays attention only to what he did.
In the conclusion of his essay, however, an explanation is revealed: according to Wilentz, those “profoundly anti-political” writers belong to the same breed of Mugwump liberals who became besotted with Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign. Their hunger for a Lincolnian figure made them “hallucinate” about the lofty character of a man who was, in fact, just as cynical and shrewd an operator as any of his competitors, if not more so.
The charge is both inaccurate and contradictory. The inaccuracy I know from experience: In the hundreds of hours I spent volunteering for the Obama campaign in Indiana and Virginia, I did not meet a single person who believed their candidate was too good for politics. In fact, we applauded the candidate and his advisors for playing the game so well: picking up delegates in caucus states that Wilentz’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, all but ignored and organizing the most impressive grassroots and fundraising efforts anyone could remember. Of course, we were attracted by Obama’s charisma, language, and biography--but none of that would have mattered much if he hadn’t known how to win. Wilentz thus attacks Obama for possessing just those qualities he believes na?ve liberals ignore when they write about Lincoln.
But, by now, this is an old and rather tired story. During last year’s campaign, Wilentz--who I’ve known and admired for 25 years--wrote numerous pieces for TNR, Newsweek, and other publications that occasionally drew on history to portray Obama in a variety of negative guises: a hypocrite who played the race card, a Stevensonian egghead, an anti-working class elitist, the mastermind of a cult, etc. His Lincoln essay--for all its scholarly expertise--continues that offensive, by indirect means.
“Who does not wish Obama well?” he asks. Unfortunately, one well-respected Princeton historian should be raising his hand.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is co-editor of Dissent.