The Mythology of the Mythology of Lincoln

Update: Here is a transcript of a debate between Harry V. Jaffa and Thomas DiLorenzo from 2002, which was sponsored by The Independent Institute.  Brooks Simpson has also written up a thoughtful response to this post.

I just finished watching Judge Napolotino’s interview with Thomas DiLorenzo and Thomas Woods on FOX News about the so-called mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln.  The three raced through all of the talking points that are now part of the standard debunking of Lincoln’s greatness.  We are told that Lincoln was a racist [as was just about every mid-19th century white American], that he arrested thousands of political opponents [Have you read anything by Mark Neely?], and that he inaugurated a modern nation state that violated the Founders goal of establishing limited constitutional government [Relative to what?].  All of this is presented to the general public as if these arguments are somehow new.  They seem to be completely unaware of the rich Lincoln scholarship that has revised much of what we know about our 16th president.

While those of us familiar with this Lincoln scholarship might enjoy a good laugh, we would do well to keep in mind that DiLorenzo and Woods are probably influencing the general public more through their publications and activism than all of the recent scholarly studies combined.  There are a number of reasons for this, but I suspect that part of it can be traced to the unwillingness of museums, historical societies, and professional conference organizers to engage these folks in legitimate scholarly discourse.  The upshot has been the creation of a self-contained group of writers, who reaffirm one another’s legitimacy by appearing on the same television shows and spewing the same rhetoric.

I am reminded of an essay that Daniel Feller, editor of the Andrew Jackson Papers at the University of Tennessee, published in Reviews in American History in which he reviewed three popular “counter-orthodoxy” books, including DiLorenzo’s The Real Lincoln.

If collegial accolades could settle historical debate, the new orthodoxy conveyed in [David Blight’s] Race and Reunion would have swept all competitors from the field. Yet a counter-orthodoxy not only survives, but thrives. By the measure of book sales, it even prevails. It flourishes not only among the neo-Confederates described by [Tony] Horwitz, but in an alternative world of scholarship, a world rarely encountered by subscribers to this journal [RAH]. The works of this other narrative are taught in college courses (though not necessarily in the best-known colleges) and endorsed by university professors (though not always professors of history). The authors are not cranks in re-enactor garb, but public intellectuals with academic credentials and claims to scholarly detachment.

The popularity of these books reminds us that academics live in a cocoon, which we mistake at our peril for the world.  It is a comfortable cocoon, filled with people and ideas we feel at ease with. But outside that cocoon, convictions are being shaped that will affect us all. The inclination to ignore ersatz scholarship and go about our business is strong, for the costs of engaging are high. But if we believe what we say we do – that knowing history is important, for such knowledge has consequences – then the costs of neglect may be higher.

Of course, this is a much bigger issue than anything I can present in a blog post.  What I will say, however, is that it would be nice to see DiLorenzo and Woods have to present these arguments among historians who have actually published scholarly studies about Lincoln.  Let’s see how well their arguments hold up.  Of course, first, they have to be engaged.:

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You Interpret

[Hat-Tip to Vicki Betts]

Vicki was kind enough to send along these two brief newspaper notices.  I’ve seen plenty of these references in the course of my research – just about every one is from early on in the war.  Here is your chance to be a historian.  What do you make of these brief references to the black community and their willingness to serve the Confederate cause?  What questions do we need to answer about these specific sources and what are the possible interpretations that can be introduced?

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [MEMPHIS, TN], August 18, 1861, p. 2, c. 2
The Fort Smith Times of the 10th, states that two companies of southern blackmen have been formed in the neighborhood.  They are thorough southern men, not armed but are drilling to take the field, and say that they are determined to fight for their masters and their homes.

[LITTLE ROCK] ARKANSAS TRUE DEMOCRAT, September 19, 1861, p. 1, c. 7
Darkies Shooting Abolitionists.—The war has dispelled one delusion of the abolitionists.  The negroes regard them as enemies instead of friends.  No insurrection has occurred in the South—no important stampede of slaves has evinced their desire for freedom.  On the contrary, they have jeered at and insulted our troops, have readily enlisted in the rebel army, and on Sunday, at Manassas, shot down our men with as much alacrity as if abolition had never existed.  These are creatures for whose sake Lovejoy, Chandler and Pomeroy are agitating the nation, and to whom they would unconstitutionally extend the privilege of freemen and equality.—Northern Exchange.

MEMPHIS DAILY APPEAL [ATLANTA, GA], December 11, 1863, p. 1, c. 8
Old Dick.–We learn, from the Danville Appeal, that the old negro man Dick Slate, well known as the drummer of the 18th Virginia regiment, was sold on last Friday for $750.  He was purchased by the corporation of Danville.  Dick entered the army at the beginning of the war, and served about two years, in which time he gained considerably notoriety, both as a drummer and a fighter.  He was favorably mentioned by Russell, the correspondent of the London Times, for his fighting qualities.

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My Final Civil War Class

Leading my Civil War Memory Class in a Discussion at the Lee Monument in Richmond

Today I am teaching my final class on the American Civil War at the St. Anne’s – Belfield School.  It’s not going to be a memorable class by any stretch of the imagination; we’ve been looking at film for much of the trimester and today we need to wrap up the last scene of Shirley Temple’s “The Littlest Rebel.”  That said, I am feeling a little sad and just a bit sentimental.  I count myself as one of the lucky ones in that for the past 7 years I’ve been able to offer a high school level course on a subject that I spend so much time with outside of class.  No, it doesn’t really seem like a job at all.  I have had some wonderful students over the past few years and a couple of them even went on to study Civil War history in college.  Let’s face it, if you can’t excite high school students with the Civil War you really have no business being in a classroom.

More importantly, my personal interest in the subject allowed me to get to know my students that much better.  And in the end that’s what it is all about.  As important as the content is in its own right, what we are doing as teachers is reaching out and making connections with our students.  The subject is the backdrop on which we work.  At the same time and to a great extent over the past ten years I’ve measured my personal growth based on the quality of my teaching and the connections that it has allowed me to make.  I am surely going to need that again at some point.

Thanks to all my students, who have helped me to better understand THE most important event in American history.

How ’bout them apples, Boston!

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Bid ‘Em In

[Hat-Tip to Jubilo! The Emancipation Century]
This video could easily be shared in the classroom to generate an interesting discussion. For me its the cadence of the auctioneers voice and the constant refrain of Bid ‘Em In that helps to bring home the horror of the slave trade. It’s incredibly powerful.

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Who Do Sons of Confederate Veterans Represent?

Yesterday’s post on the sparsely attended Jefferson Davis reenactment in Montgomery, Alabama generated a great deal of interest and comments.  The Sons of Confederate Veterans, which hosted the event, has crafted a narrative that imagines itself as uniquely qualified to set the terms of how Confederate soldiers and the war as a whole ought to be remembered and commemorated.  They fashion themselves as engaged in a gallant defense of a history that is supposedly under assault by various individuals and organizations.  The zeal for their cause is wrapped up in the assumption that their lineage is both a necessary and sufficient condition for their preferred view; this functions to create a battle of us v. them.  The war being waged is against vague notions of political correctness, “carpetbaggers” the liberal media, and, of course, academics engaged in revisionist history.

The strategy works well enough to define the ideological boundaries of the organization; however, it also reveals its limitations as well.  The SCV doesn’t simply bring together descendants of Confederate soldiers, it brings them together around a set of shared beliefs that have little do with remembering individual soldiers.  I say this as an outsider, but I can’t help but notice how little time is actually devoted to remembering the Confederate soldier as a dynamic historical agent.  Instead we are bombarded with Confederate history month proclamations and Nathan Bedford Forrest vanity tags.  Where is the common soldier?  When was the last time the intellectual arm of the SCV organized a conference around the history of Confederate soldiers as opposed to trying to justify secession and highlight the evil intent of Abraham Lincoln?  Even more disturbing is the impression that membership implies a certain belief about the legitimacy of the Confederate experiment, whether it has to do with secession and/or treason.  Finally, yesterday’s ceremony reinforced the impression that the organization is concerned as much with contemporary politics as it is with heritage/history.

I can’t help but wonder how many proud descendants of Confederate soldiers are being left out as a result.  Where do Robert Moore, Will Stoutamire, and Andy Hall fit in?   If the mission of the SCV is to honor and commemorate the Confederate soldier, why does it choose to take stances on issues that detract from this mission?  Here is what I believe:

  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe that secession was constitutional.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and not believe in states rights.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and believe that Lincoln was one of this nation’s greatest presidents.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor without believing that Lee and Jackson are worthy of adulation.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be thankful that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and be a member of the Democratic Party.
  • You can honor your Confederate ancestor and read books published by university presses.

Continue with the list as you wish.  My point is that none of that really matters in the end.  What matters is the individual’s identification with an ancestor that he/she may or may not know much of anything about.  The goal of the organization ought to be to help one another to better understand what this generation experienced.  I suspect that Andy, Robert, and Will represent a large constituency of folks, who would embrace such an organization.   So, why does the SCV only represent some Confederate descendants?

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