Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lincoln the Man

With presidents day coming up, I recommend exploring some revisionist histories of those honored. For example, the idolatry surrounding Lincoln is not based on scrupulous scholarship. How could one man overthrow the government and be considered anything but a traitor, let alone a great president? For a fresh look at the 16th president, consider reading Lincoln the Man by Edgar Lee Masters. Soon after its publication in 1931 the U.S. Congress tried to ban it, and it virtually disappeared from bookstores and libraries until 1997, when this edition was published.

From a review:
I think Masters explanation for why the war was fought is better than most. As I said, we must judge wars based on their outcomes, not based on propaganda. By that metric, the slaves weren’t free and the resulting “union” was absurd. The South was no more united with the North than occupied France was united with the Third Reich. If you kill enough people, you get a union of some kind. To Masters’ point, there certainly was no union on the legal terms that prevailed prior to the fighting. In both cases, it’s impossible for the resulting outcome to justify the loss of life and the level of destruction. 
Yet Masters’ view of what the US really was seems a bit naive. If the country really was teetering on the edge so precariously that a few men who believed they were the instruments of God’s will could bring it all down, then how long could it survive? Nevertheless, the US that emerges from the war sounds familiar: foreign interventions justified on religious grounds, a central government beholden to business interests, increasing centralization of all policy, nearly unlimited executive powers in wartime and so on.