LINCOLN: A VERY SHORT INTRODUCTION
By Allen C. Guelzo
Oxford University Press, $11.95, 147 pages, illus.
Reviewed by Jeremy Lott
In the 19th century, two principal groups stood opposed to human bondage - liberals and the more fervent, more numerous and predominantly Christian abolitionists.
We should distinguish 19th-century liberals from the current crop, as Allen C. Guelzo does in his “Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction.” Mr. Guelzo, a historian from Gettysburg College and a George W. Bush appointee to the National Council on the Humanities, says liberalism “has come to mean … an unpopular combination of sentimentality, hedonism and a selective conviction that problems are the fault of social systems and that solutions are the province of government.”
But to previous - oh, let’s call them classical - liberals, “liberalism” was nothing less than “the political application of the Enlightenment.” Their “basic argument” held that government “is not a mystery handed down from the heavens to the anointed few” but that the state should yield to reason and recognize our natural rights. “Liberalism,” Mr. Guelzo writes, “was … passionately devoted to freedom, and especially the freedom to become anything that your talents and the free exercise of your rights opens up.”
Liberals thus were orderly radicals. They favored significant legal reforms that could gradually bring about even larger changes, spread out over society. American liberals wanted to find some way to free the slaves within the constitutional system.
They had some reasons to think that might work. They believed, rightly, that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution had limited slavery and destined it for extinction, and they wanted the U.S. government to avoid doing anything that would give the “peculiar institution” a new lease on life by allowing it in the territories or newly incorporated states.
Cotton farming tended to wear out the soil. Without the ability to transfer slaves west, Southern slave owners eventually would run out of an economic rationale for raising new generations in bondage, according to the theory.
So liberals favored gradual emancipation. Abolitionists were not so patient. They held that slavery was not just a lapse of reason but a monstrous evil that should not be tolerated one moment longer. In the 1840s, a frustrated William Lloyd Garrison publicly torched a copy of the U.S. Constitution on the Fourth of July, damning it as a pro-slavery document. Abolitionists wanted immediate “emancipation without compensation.” That would mean freedom for the slaves and financial ruin for their owners.
Where did the slaves’ eventual emancipator, Abraham Lincoln, fit into this ideological picture? Mr. Guelzo argues that Lincoln was a liberal who learned better. This brief “biography of his ideas” admits the difficulty of sorting out Lincoln’s thoughts. Lincoln’s contemporaries found him difficult to read. He did not keep a diary and rarely spoke of his past. “But there was a man of ideas behind this determined, private shield, and those ideas might be glimpsed,” Mr. Guelzo insists.
“Glimpsed,” but not understood. “Lincoln” gives us the basic biographical details of Lincoln’s forebears and follows the arc of his life - from birth to rise to political martyrdom - painting us an appropriately muddy portrait of Lincoln’s development on the one issue that matters to posterity.
As a young man, Lincoln traveled to New Orleans and witnessed for the first time an open-air slave market. We are informed that this sickened him. Lincoln told a friend that he would “hit [slavery] hard” if he ever got the chance. But the story sounds dubious. As a lawyer, Lincoln helped recover not just one slave but a whole family of fugitive slaves for a client.
Mr. Guelzo suggests that Lincoln’s outlook was shaped by contemporary currents of liberal thinking, often giving voice to prominent English liberals to fill the gaps. We know Lincoln read the works of several of these essayists. We do not know how seriously he took their ideas.
English liberals worked to end protectionist Corn Laws in agriculture. Lincoln favored high tariffs to encourage American industry. According to Mr. Guelzo, that pitted both parties against their countries’ aristocratic agricultural elite. That seems a stretch.
Lincoln was not publicly an abolitionist at any time before he issued the wartime writ that freed slaves in the rebel states. He often was irked mildly by abolitionists and had been offered up as a presidential candidate by the Republican Party because he was one of slavery’s few eloquent critics who was not an abolitionist.
Early in the Civil War, Lincoln took an approach toward ending slavery that liberals might applaud. He offered to use federal monies to purchase the freedom of slaves in Delaware and border Southern states that were wavering.
The offer failed spectacularly. In Mr. Guelzo’s telling, the essentially secular Lincoln reacted to the failure to come to a reasonable solution by finding in it the mysterious will of God. Lincoln first privately and then publicly said the Almighty must have willed war and willed that it drag on. It was a way of paying for America’s original sin: slavery.
However, finding the will of God and finding religion were two very different things. Lincoln was shot on the evening of April 14, 1865, while taking in a bawdy play at Ford’s Theatre. It was Good Friday.
Jeremy Lott is author of “The Warm Bucket Brigade: The Story of the American Vice Presidency” and editor of Labor Watch.